Many Iowans on both sides of the political divide are praising President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of Tom Vilsack to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He’s a familiar, trusted figure in the state, having served as Iowa governor for two terms and as agriculture secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama. The moderate Democrat is seen as a slam-dunk, safe pick in the closely divided Senate, where Biden will face fights over other cabinet nominees.
The Department of Agriculture is an agency with a remarkably broad reach. Not only does it administer a long list of farm programs, it also oversees the nation’s food assistance programs and school lunches. It inspects food processing and meatpacking facilities. The U.S. Forest Service is also part of the agriculture department.
It’s a big job, as Vilsack clearly knows. It’s a department with powerful influence over the nation’s food and agriculture systems. And that’s why not everyone is pleased with a status quo appointment.
Groups hoping the next secretary would take on the corporations and large agricultural interests who strongly influence department policy are dismayed by Vilsack’s ties to “big ag.” Vilsack returns to the USDA after working as a well-paid executive for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a group representing dairy interests.
The pandemic has laid bare the threats corporate consolidation pose to the nation’s food supply chain, harming farmers, meatpacking workers and consumers. We’re already dealing with the effects of a climate crisis in a nation flooded, burning and suffering frequent drought conditions. Farming practices are dirtying the nation’s waters. The USDA continues to come to terms with its shameful history of racism against Black farmers.
Critics contend Vilsack did too little to address these huge problems during his previous tenure. They must be addressed now.
Knowing Vilsack as we do in Iowa, we know he’s been willing to embrace new ideas, initiatives and reforms. It’s doubtful someone as smart as Vilsack would fail to understand the fresh urgency to address big problems after four years of neglect by the Trump administration. The status quo is unacceptable.
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What critics see as weaknesses may also be strengths. Vilsack can use his long ties to agriculture to bring powerful interests to the table and explain the need for change. His bipartisan profile can be an asset in brining reluctant politicians along. Vilsack can credibly explain to farmers how agriculture must be part of the solution in dealing with climate change.
Even a “safe choice” can be a historic agent for change. We’re hoping Vilsack rises to the challenge.
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