USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Odious Association with the Biotech Industry

tom-vilsack-secretary-USDAOrganic products already face many challenges. To name a few, organic products have to compete with the generally less expensive pricing of non-organic products (albeit they have extremely expensive external costs!) and there is the fact organic products must maintain profitability in an economic culture that values convenience over long-term effects and consumption over sustainability. Not only that, but the biotech industry is thriving and has a lot of money, and therefore political clout.

An example of the struggles the organic movement faces came to light recently in the case of genetically modified alfalfa. The approval of the unregulated cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa by the USDA occured in January of 2012. The effects of this approval will be detrimental to the health of the environment, the health of cattle, and the health of humans The approval of GM alfalfa has the potential to end the organic dairy movement, because cows consuming GM alfalfa will produce products that will no longer be considered organic. That means no more organic milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter will be produced in the United States. Alfalfa is the first perennial crop to be genetically modified and because it is a perennial it has a far greater chance of cross-pollinating with non-GM alfalfa. Perennials are incredibly prolific and restrictions would be required to maintain the genetic dignity of surrounding alfalfa strains and crops. Cross-pollination with genetically engineered alfalfa would mean that all strands of alfalfa that presently exist would be contaminated.

Prior to the January decision that approved the unregulated use of GM alfalfa, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seemed to be leaning towards a sharp reversal of prior government GMO regulations. Vilsack was considering putting geographic restrictions on GM alfalfa in order to protect organic alfalfa growers, but given his history, seemed doomed to cave in to the pressures of the biotech industry, specifically Monsanto, which stands to make lucrative profits from the approval. As usual, GMOs get unrestricted approval from the United States government, while sectors of the organic industry are being threatened with annihilation.

The situation is not helped by the fact that Vilsack is very much in favor of the biotech industry. Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, has a record of supporting corn and soy based biofuels. While these are alternatives to petroleum, unfortunately they are not more sustainable. The production of biofuels uses as much, if not more, fossil fuel energy than they generate. This statistical problem of biofuels consuming more energy than they create actually would drive up the price of food around the world and end up potentially increasing world hunger and starvation.

Prior to being appointed by President Obama, in 2001 Vilsack was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Association. He received the award based on the fact that he showed a commitment to biotechnology and had a vision of Iowa as a central part of biotech’s future in the United States. As governor of Iowa Vilsack created the Grow Iowa Values Fund, which was half billion-dollar appropriation that was used to boost Iowa’s economy through corporate grants. A significant amount of these grants were allotted to the biotech industry.

Vilsack also created the seed pre-emption bill of 2005, which took away Iowa’s local governments’ ability to regulate seeds. The effects of this bill meant that genetically engineered products could be grown anywhere because there would be no local government regulation and it took away the ability of local governments to regulate GE-free buffers.

While Vilsack claims that the regulation of genetically engineered agricultural products must be based on science, his record shows that he has no qualms about supporting the biotechnology industry. It is incredibly problematic and challenging to the biotech industry to have a patron of biotechnology as the Secretary of Agriculture. Although President Obama already appointed Vilsack to chief of the USDA in December of 2008, the Organic Consumers Association worked rigorously to fight Vilsack’s nomination. They continue to fight relentlessly for the rights of the organic industry and are working on many relevant campaigns, which you can check out and get involved in by clicking on the following link: Organic Consumers Association. To sign a petition directly aiming to end genetically engineering in industrial agriculture check out this petition addressed to Secretary Vilsack located on ForceChange.com.

Photo credit: usda.gov/img/content/09di1006-06final8x10.jpg

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