Biden has chosen Barack Obama's Agriculture Secretary, Tom "Mr.
Monsanto"* Vilsack (what a memable name) to reprise
Given that his record as a lobbyist for big Ag, his steadfast refusal to address entrenched racism and sexual harassment in the Department of Agriculture in his last tenure, and his refusal to address anthropogenic climate change, there is a lot of outrage over this decision:
When President Barack Obama nominated Tom Vilsack, a two-term Iowa governor, to be secretary of agriculture in 2008, Vilsack was seen as a centrist who wouldn’t change much about how farming was done in America—for better or worse.
Fast forward to 2020, and Vilsack is poised to resume his role heading the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under President-elect Joe Biden, according to multiple outlets. This week, Vilsack emerged as a frontrunner ahead of two Democratic women: former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who would have been the first Black woman to lead the agency.
The prospect was greeted with tepid enthusiasm by some and outright ire among others. Many in the food world, possibly eager to find something to praise, pointed to his previous stint in the job as a net positive, and proof he could hit the job running. Yet for environmental advocates, Black farmers, food safety champions, and critics of corporate agribusiness, a return to the status quo feels inadequate.
For many advocates of racial justice in the food system, Vilsack’s nomination is an affront that suggests the Biden administration has little interest in making the ag sector more equitable and remedying USDA’s notorious history of racial discrimination against Black farmers.
Much of the disappointment stems from both the agency’s practices under Vilsack’s watch and his own reported reluctance to repair the damage of systemic racism. As The Counter reported in a 2019 investigation, employees alleged that Vilsack’s USDA repeatedly ran out the statute of limitations clock on discrimination complaints, while attempting to foreclose on farmers whose cases hadn’t yet been resolved. Employees also said that USDA manipulated Census data to obscure a decline in Black farming, which in turn allowed Vilsack to paint a rosy but inaccurate picture of his tenure.
One particular scandal during Vilsack’s tenure stands out right now: the controversial ouster of Shirley Sherrod, a Black USDA official. Vilsack forced Sherrod to resign after the far-right website Breitbart disseminated a selectively edited video to suggest that she had discriminated against a white farmer. (After the full video came to light, Vilsack apologized for his treatment of Sherrod and reportedly offered to resign over the incident.)
I don't blame Vilsack over this incident.
It's clear that the cowardice and hypocrisy driving this incident came from Barack Obama, or those closest to him in the White House.
For women who have experienced sexual abuse while working for USDA’s Forest Service—an agency that employees say fostered a decades-long culture of sexual harassment—Vilsack’s nomination is a punch to the gut, according to Lesa Donnelly, former employee and current vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees. Donnelly is a well-known advocate who has been calling on the agency to better protect employees from sexual abuse. According to her, Vilsack was part of the problem: He was “unwilling to investigate complaints properly and hold people accountable” during his tenure, Donnelly told news outlet Government Executive in 2016. The thought of his return to the agency is retraumatizing many of the women she advocates for, she told The Counter in an interview.
Numerous other organizations, including those representing Black farmers, have vocally opposed Vilsack’s nomination.
Indeed, rigorous environmental policies did not seem to be a priority for much of Vilsack’s term leading USDA. In one telling moment, then-Secretary Vilsack refused to take a stance on whether crop subsidies should be conditioned on farmers’ willingness to adopt basic conservation measures. “There were moments during his first tenure when Secretary Vilsack missed an opportunity to make the environment a priority,” said Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, noting Vilsack’s unwillingness to challenge the status quo.
These aren’t the only Vilsack-supported policies that have raised eyebrows among environmentalists: He often boosted ethanol, a fuel additive that has long been unpopular with the green set because its production requires a lot of land and chemicals. He spent the past four years promoting dairy exports, indicating he’d be hesitant to back policies that curb production, such as limiting the construction of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As recently as 2014, Vilsack appeared eager to shift the conversation about the climate crisis away from agriculture. At an event at Drake University, he said that “agriculture tends to take the brunt of criticism about climate change, but the industry contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for a warming planet.”
“It’s very important—essential—that USDA be vigorous and engaged, and that this not become a private-sector exercise, where carbon markets take over the conversation,” Deeble said. “We’ve got good programs at USDA right now that an ambitious secretary would be able to repurpose or modify slightly to get focused on climate change.”
On food safety, Vilsack “defaults to what the big companies want”
The Department of Agriculture doesn’t just regulate farmers. It’s also responsible for the safety of the meat, poultry, and eggs on our plates—roughly 20 percent of the American food supply. Consumer advocates contacted by The Counter say they don’t expect a Secretary Vilsack to do much more to keep that food clean and disease-free.
In his first tenure, Vilsack backed a proposal that would have allowed some chicken plants to dramatically increase line processing speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175. He also supported drastically reducing the number of USDA inspectors in plants, instead asking the companies to essentially police themselves.
It’s not just line speeds. When Vilsack was the head of USDA, his department rejected a petition to recognize some strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella as adulterants, and make it illegal to process and sell meat and poultry that could sicken the public. A similar petition was submitted earlier this year—and Corrigan expects Vilsack, once again, to reject it.
Farm groups responded to Vilsack’s likely nomination with cautious optimism, noting the former secretary’s experience as a boon. “It is hard to argue with the fact that the USDA has been significantly eroded over the last four years in terms of research capacity and administrative capacity—it’s dropped down the rankings,” said Deeble of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Getting somebody who knows where all the switches and levers are is valuable if you want to fix that.”
Yet there’s reason for skepticism. At the beginning of President Obama’s first term, Vilsack embarked on a long listening tour to hear from small-scale farms about the impact of corporate consolidation within agriculture. The tour left many hopeful that the administration would overhaul regulations in the meatpacking industry and shift some market power back to small producers. Many years later, the administration advanced a watered-down version of the rules, which were then rolled back by the Trump administration.
Yet Vilsack spent the last four years as CEO for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a group that represents some of the biggest dairy conglomerates which in turn hold a lot of sway over prices paid to small-scale farmers. Market control by the biggest player, critics argue, has been a contributing factor in the recent spate of small dairy failures. “Secretary Vilsack’s experience in the last four years does give us some cause for concern,” Stranz said. “But we also know, however, that as an administrator for a federal agency, he has the wherewithal and ability to work to advance policy goals that benefit farmers across the country.”
Some advocates hoped that the Biden administration would work to combat consolidation in agriculture and feel let down by Vilsack’s nomination. In particular, they take issue with his failure to prioritize policies that would have given farmers and ranchers more leverage with the industry’s meatpacking giants.
Take the Farmer Fair Practice rules—also known as the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rules—for example. As antitrust law advocates see it, Vilsack’s USDA dilly-dallied over the rules for too long, and by eventually introducing them in the final months of the Obama administration, it all but guaranteed that they would get axed by Trump. These rules would have made it easier for contract farmers to sue processors—who dictate almost all the terms of raising livestock—over unfair retaliation, such as terminating contracts of farmers who attempt to organize.
“He can’t work for industry if he’s governing the industry.”
Vilsack also accumulated fresh baggage in the last four years as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, an organization tasked with generating overseas demand for U.S. milk and milk products. Vilsack has drawn heat for taking a nearly $1 million salary from his job, at a time when dairy farmers have struggled with low prices and bankruptcies.
It’s also important to note that since the Export Council counts some of the largest dairy suppliers in the country among its members, including Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the nation’s biggest milk processor and cooperative. DFA has been the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging antitrust violations and price-fixing practices, which many dairy farmers say have led to declining revenue and even driven some out of business. Now, they’re worried that Vilsack’s affiliation could pose a “huge” conflict of interest should he be confirmed as secretary of agriculture again.
Ultimately, Vilsack’s record as agriculture secretary was spotty. He missed opportunities to prioritize environmental policies and backed off on reigning in monopolies in the meat industry. And his record on civil rights has only worsened since he left office, amid a steady trickle of revelations about his treatment of Black farmers and victims of sexual harassment. These failures have left deep scars—scars that are dealbreakers for some and, at minimum, caution flags for others.
This guy is a complete horror show, and epitomizes everything that was wrong, and corrupt with the Obama administration.
Capitulation to corporate interests, partnering with entities who are the source of the party, and a steadfast push for market based solutions in the event of market failures.
Vilsack was bad in 2009. He is even worse now.
*I'm not making this up. This what he is actually what called by his opponents.