Meet Obama’s Cabinet: 7 Things to Know About Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Obama Vilsack

His bio: “Mr. Vilsack, a native of Pittsburgh, moved to Iowa to live in the hometown of his college-sweetheart-turned-wife, Christie Vilsack. His career in politics was unexpectedly born in 1986 when a disgruntled resident of Mount Pleasant barged into a City Council meeting and killed the mayor. Vilsack stepped in to serve as mayor. He later ran for the State Senate and in 1998 was elected governor in a campaign that even his closest friends did not believe he could win. Vilsack, who has spent the fall semester as a political fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, works as a lawyer in Des Moines. Four years ago, he was among those who were considered to be a running mate for Senator John Kerry.” (NY Times)

He supports a unified food agency: “The FDA bears the brunt of food safety oversight, a mission called into question in the wake of a massive recall of peanut products. But at least 15 government agencies have a hand in making sure food is safe under at least 30 different laws, some of which date back to the early 1900s. It’s a convoluted system…Vilsack, said he supports creating a single, combined food safety agency. It’s a major break from his predecessors. ‘You can’t have two systems and be able to reassure people you’ve got the job covered,’ Vilsack said. Such a radical overhaul would be difficult. Many in the food industry have long opposed any changes, fearing increased oversight could cut into profits. Allies in Congress have resisted new laws. (AP)

He’s petitioning for an increase in ethanol production: “An increase in the ethanol-gasoline blend rate to 12 or 13 percent could be accomplished quickly and with minimal scientific review, giving a needed boost to the future of the industry, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday. Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group, last week submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a formal request to boost the ethanol blend rate to as high as 15 percent from the current cap of 10 percent. The EPA has 270 days to review, collect public comment and make a decision…Ethanol, once the cornerstone of the U.S. plan to wean itself from foreign energy, has drawn fire from the food industry and aid groups for diverting corn from livestock and foodmakers, pushing world food prices up. Food manufacturers and livestock and environmental groups have lined up against a higher blend rate for ethanol made from corn. They say the EPA should wait until ethanol made from crop waste and grasses is commercially available. (Reuters)

He’s calling for less government subsidies for farmers: Vilsack is “urging farmers long dependent on government subsidies to modernize, diversify and reposition themselves to latch onto a new kind of income: alternative fuels…Large farm groups are worried the new secretary is foreshadowing a change in the way Congress might see the farm business. And it has lobbyists talking about whether farmers will be forced to use nonfarming methods if direct payments are reduced. It’s also earning Vilsack praise from small farmer groups…The groups now say he could help close the direct payment gap between small farmers and large commercial operators. In these tough economic times, Vilsack has been frank about the future of the farmers’ more than $5 billion in direct government payments: They’re likely headed for the chopping block…He envisions farms dotted with wind turbines and growers profiting off of second- and third-generation biofuels, lessening the need for hefty government subsidies and allowing farmers to profit from climate change.” (Politico)

No more “downer” cows: “The government permanently banned the slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, seeking to further minimize the chance that mad-cow disease could enter the food supply. The Agriculture Department proposed the ban last year after the biggest beef recall in U.S. history. The recall involved a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse and “downer” cows…Those kind of cows pose a higher risk of having mad-cow disease. They also are susceptible to infections from bacteria that cause food poisoning. The recall also raised concerns about the treatment of cattle and came after an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States videotaped workers abusing downer cows to force them to slaughter…A partial ban on downer cows was in place. But there was a loophole. If a cow collapsed after passing inspection, government inspectors allowed the animal into the food supply if it had an acute injury but showed no signs of central-nervous disorder that might indicate the presence of mad-cow disease.” (AP)

Better food and garden parties: “On the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth earlier this month, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff at the department’s Washington headquarters broke out its shovels and broke pavement on a garden. Dubbed The People’s Garden, the project seems slated to simply replace a lot of unnecessary pavement with grass. But it is nonetheless a symbolic nod to the eat-local movement, which encourages community gardens in urban areas. Will the Obamas be following suit?…The last time the 18-plus acre White House lawn was used for vegetable gardening was the ‘40s, when Eleanor Roosevelt started a home-gardening movement that helped feed the nation in wartime. ‘Victory Gardens’ popped up across the country – and even the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. could eat what their plot produced…Advocates say sowing the seeds of a new Victory Garden movement would be good for the environment, and also for families’ budgets – the cost of food has risen 45 percent worldwide in the past two years. It could even play a role in public health at a time when the CDC says more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. (CBS News)

At-home with Vilsack: He “lists a number of measures he has taken, including making his house in Des Moines more energy-efficient and driving a hybrid Mercury Mariner. At his home he had an energy audit done and as a result has lowered the temperature of the water heater, is putting in more…When Mr. Vilsack arrived at the USDA he was presented with a new Cadillac but insisted it be exchanged for a vehicle that would run on E-85 fuel, a blend of up to 85% ethanol. He also had a small area of asphalt broken up to avoid the urban-heat effect of such a surface and plans to use that land for an organic vegetable garden tended by people with disabilities and employees in their own time. ‘The produce will be given away to the homeless,’ Mr. Vilsack says.” (WSJ)

Posted by: Mariela

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One response to “Meet Obama’s Cabinet: 7 Things to Know About Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

  1. I say yes to a new crop of Victory Gardens but am a bit concerned about the push for ethanol. We’ve got a long way to go with the current system of ethanol production so that it isn’t used solely as a fossil fuel alternative but also doesn’t push farmers out of growing GMO-free corn for consumption.

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