VilsackImage Source: Flickr, USDA photo by Melissa Blair

Here’s a quixotic scenario: a secretary of agriculture who is cozy with farmers, not corporations.

Instead, we are preparing for the return of Tom Vilsack, who served as secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration between 2008 and 2016.

Most recently, Vilsack worked in the private sector, as president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council, a group that represents the global trade interests of industrial dairy farming. He will leave this highly paid industry job to return to Washington, DC.

Vilsack’s industry-friendly roots run deep. As governor of Iowa, Vilsack was named BIO Governor of the Year in 2001 for his “dedication to the biotechnology industry.” (Current USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue received the award in 2009.) Vilsack’s repeat appointment is a gift to GMO corn and soy farmers, who have flourished due to subsidies that have fueled a marketplace run on cheap processed food and ethanol.

Under Vilsack’s leadership during his previous tenure as Secretary of Agriculture, the USDA put forth crucial revisions to the Packers and Stockyards Act that would have given contract farmers a much-needed voice in their own contract negotiations. Yielding to pressure from agribusiness interests, Vilsack ultimately failed to enact the promised antitrust regulations.

Vilsack’s USDA record on civil rights is abysmal. He fired Shirley Sherrod in 2010. Given the opportunity to rectify the agency’s historic discrimination against Black farmers, Vilsack chose to hide ongoing discrimination. Under his watch, USDA distorted statistics from the Census of Agriculture to fabricate a story of Black farmers returning to the land.

“Vilsack has a track record of supporting industrialization and concentration across the agricultural spectrum,” noted Kestrel Burcham, Cornucopia’s policy director. “The number of family farms and dairies actually declined under his previous leadership as Secretary of Agriculture. Our entire food system and the health of the climate hang in the balance. We hope Vilsack will use this second chance to acknowledge and support the wide-ranging benefits of organic farming and improve the trajectory of civil rights within the USDA.”

While the Organic Trade Association “looks forward to working again with Tom Vilsack,” other organizations in the good food movement, including Center for Food Safety and Beyond Pesticides, oppose Vilsack’s appointment.

Ricardo Salvador at Union of Concerned Scientists offered this warning: “The next secretary has much to do to orient the USDA and our food system toward the future, rebuild the department’s scientific capacity, restore science-based policymaking in the public interest, and make farming and our food system fairer and more inclusive. Vilsack’s USDA must step up and ensure people aren’t going hungry; use science to protect our soil, water and future food supply; and ensure that farmers and rural communities can thrive. Everyone in the United States is affected by a farm and food system that degrades our environment, impoverishes rural communities, worsens climate change and churns out a junk food diet.”

Cornucopia’s watchdog role continues under the new administration. Stay tuned for our analyses as policies unfold.

What can you do? First, contact your senators, asking them to weigh in on each of the President-elect’s appointments (click here to find your House and Senate Representatives). You can use Center For Food Safety’s petition to contact the Biden transition team with your concerns and hopes for agricultural policy moving forward.


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