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Obama Picks Pro-Ethanol, Agribusiness Ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to Head Agricultural Dept.

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President-elect Barack Obama has officially nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department. The pro-ethanol Vilsack will manage a staff of more than 105,000 and a budget of more than $95 billion. We discuss Vilsack’s nomination with Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association and Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, we will spend the hour discussing some of President-elect Barack Obama’s latest picks for his cabinet. On Wednesday, Obama officially nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to serve as Secretary of the Interior Department.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: Together, they will serve as guardians of the American landscape on which the health of our economy and the well-being of our families so heavily depend.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We will discuss the nomination of Ken Salazar in a few minutes, but first we turn to Tom Vilsack.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: To lead a Department of Agriculture that helps unlock the potential of a twenty-first century agricultural economy, I can think of no one better than Tom Vilsack. As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use. Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad, but in our farm fields here at home. That’s the kind of leader I want in my cabinet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack will manage a staff of more than 105,000 and a budget of more than $95 billion.

From 1999 to 2007, Vilsack served as the Democratic governor of Iowa. After a brief run for the presidency in 2007, he worked as an attorney for a corporate law firm that has represented food giants Cargill and ConAgra. He is a strong backer of biofuels and genetically engineered crops. In 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named Vilsack Governor of the Year. On the issue of farm subsidies, he has supported reducing government subsidies of factory farms.

This is part of what Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday after being nominated to be Agriculture Secretary.

    TOM VILSACK: As a small-town lawyer, I had the responsibility of helping farm families during tough economic times. I know these people. America’s farmers and ranchers deserve a Secretary of Agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us every day. I hope to be that secretary. I look forward to working with congressional leaders who share the President-elect’s vision of bringing hope to rural America, of being good stewards of our natural resources, of providing American leadership on climate change, and making America a nation truly dedicated to health and nutrition.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Tom Vilsack’s most vocal supporters has been Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. If Vilsack is confirmed, it will mark the first time the Agriculture Secretary and the Senate Agriculture Committee chair are both Iowans.

We are joined right now by two guests. Ronnie Cummins is with us, the executive director of the Organic Consumers Association. He’s joining us via Skype from the town of Finland, Minnesota. We’re also joined in Washington, D.C. by Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society.

Brian Moore, let’s begin with you. What do you think of Governor Vilsack as the pick for Secretary of Agriculture?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, good morning, Amy. Thanks for having the Audubon Society on.

We’re encouraged by the pick of Governor Vilsack, and for various reasons. First of all, we believe it’s someone we can work with. This governor, as governor and as a presidential candidate, has said he would like to reduce global warming emissions by 70 percent by 2050, a nice environmental position, conservation position on reducing global warming gases. He’s also been a supporter of changing the large subsidy scale, large subsidy system, within the Department of Agriculture and, in fact, moving some of that money to the natural resources conservation programs that they run.

And I think there’s something maybe a lot of people don’t understand about the Department of Agriculture and its importance for conservation, for the environment. Two agencies there, the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, are very large, very large federal agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service with, I believe, an office in every county in America and well over a $3 billion budget, which may be the largest conservation budget in the federal government, with the purpose solely of taking private land and putting it in conservation of one way, shape or form. And Governor Vilsack has been a big supporter of those things, was as a presidential candidate. And we look forward to working with him on these really important conservation issues, if he is to become the Secretary of Agriculture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Brian Moore, do you have any concern about his close relationship with some of these huge agribusiness companies? For instance, he’s been known to fly on Monsanto jets on more than one occasion.

BRIAN MOORE: Well, it’s an interesting question, but agribusiness and agriculture are things — you know, I understand agriculture, while agribusiness is something different. And I believe it’s important to have a Secretary of Agriculture that understands the agriculture system in the United States, and agribusiness is part of that. So the assumption that the nominee for the Secretary of Agriculture is in bed with these people, I’m not sure about it. My assumption is that this is someone from a farm state who understands agriculture and, more importantly for me, understands conservation, understands the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, you are executive director of Organic Consumers Association. Your response to Governor Vilsack and Brian Moore’s depiction of him?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Well, the organic community and sustainable ag community are very disappointed in the appointment of Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. You know, Obama promised us change. What he’s given us here at best is small change. We’ve got a big problem; we need big change.

This notion that genetically engineered crops can feed the world or that, you know, corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biofuels can solve the energy crisis are, of course, completely discredited. If they’re serious about solving the climate crisis, they need to take note of the fact that American industrial agriculture uses about 19 percent of all of our fossil fuels and cranks out about 37 percent of our climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases. So if we’re going to solve the climate crisis with a 80 or 90 percent reduction in greenhouse pollution, not 70 percent, we’re going to have to transform America’s energy-intensive, chemical-intensive genetically engineered agricultural system into an organic [inaudible] in transition to organic system, which can sequester 40 percent of all of our greenhouse gases in the soil, which uses 30 to 50 percent less energy and which can produce healthy food, as opposed to the, you know, current food system, which is subsidized factory farms and junk food.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you expand particularly on what have been Vilsack’s stands when it comes to genetically modified foods?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Yes. Vilsack has been an ardent promoter, not only of genetically engineered foods and crops, but also of the extremely controversial biopharmaceutical crops, which involves [inaudible] pharmaceutical drugs or industrial chemicals into food crops. Even, you know, quite a few people in the biotech industry are alarmed by these biopharmaceuticals, since you could get dangerous drugs throughout the food supply. But Vilsack supported biopharm crops when he was governor.

He went further than that. In the year 2005, Vilsack championed a law in Iowa that’s been introduced all over the country, backed by Monsanto and the Farm Bureau. This law, this preemption law, as they’re called, basically takes away the right of municipalities or counties to regulate genetically engineered crops. Vilsack rammed this through, even though it’s extremely unpopular with not only consumers, but small farmers. Vilsack has repeated the myth of the biotech industry that genetically engineered crops can help feed the world, when in fact genetically engineered crops do not produce a higher yield. And he’s spoken about their environmental benefits, when the sum total of ten years of genetically engineered crops in the United States have increased the use of pesticides, not decreased them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just clarify, Ronnie Cummins is speaking to us via Skype. And those of you who use Skype know sometimes it can get hung up a bit, but it’s quite remarkable to talk to him and see him, for those who are watching TV, at — are you at your home now in Finland, Minnesota?

RONNIE CUMMINS: I’m in our office in Finland, Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s executive director of Organic Consumers Association. Brian Moore, in studio in the nation’s capital, in Washington, D.C., with the National Audubon Society. Your response to Ronnie Cummins’s critique of Vilsack?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, Audubon doesn’t claim to be experts in genetically modified foods, and we certainly see issues with the increased ability and increased opening up of new lands, lands, native grass prairies, marginal lands, that have provided fantastic wildlife benefit over the last — you know, over the history of our nation, lands that have never been broken into crop. And certainly the invention of some new frost-resistant, drought-resistant food strains and seeds concerns us, because it’s taking what was once a native grass prairie or native grassland, or maybe land that’s not — hasn’t been suitable for agriculture in the past, and causing, of course, tillage, runoff, extra nutrients, those types of things. And so, we’re very concerned about opening up new land and losing wildlife habitat.

At the same time, there are government programs that try to help mitigate that. And we’re big supporters of those. They’re the Natural Resource Conservation Service programs. They’re the Conservation Reserve Program. They’re the Wetlands Reserve Program. They’re Sodbuster, Sodsaver. These programs say, if you do decide to break new ground, ground that has no cropping history, then you’re no longer eligible for subsidies of any kind on that land. So, we are concerned about those things. We come at it from an environmental/wildlife point of view, where we want to provide as much habitat for birds and other wildlife as possible. Row crops and increased row crops certainly have contributed to the loss or the decline of the population of common birds in America. And so, it’s a great concern to us.

But we’re encouraged that Governor Vilsack is someone that we’ll be able to work with and talk with about these issues and encouraged by signs that he has given in previous statements that he is going to be a champion of conservation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Brian Moore, those who reluctantly are supporting Vilsack say that some of the other choices that were being floated out there were even more objectionable. Could you talk about that at all?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, at Audubon, we’re of course nonpartisan, and I know there was a handful of other possible nominees for this position coming from within the House, possibly from within the Senate, or other folks, who, in our opinion, would have taken a much less conservation-minded stance on these issues than Governor Vilsack. So we’re encouraged by his nomination, especially given the very, very important role of the Secretary of Agriculture in conservation and in providing habitat and stopping the flow of nutrient and sediment through our waterways. So, out of the lot, we’re very encouraged that this is the pick.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, while the Audubon Society is applauding the choice of Governor Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary, he still has to go through the confirmation process in the Senate. What are your plans?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Well, we had an online petition campaign in mid-November to stop Vilsack, and we got about 20,000 people to sign it. And then Vilsack announced on November 24th he was no longer a candidate for the appointment, so we stopped the campaign. Well, we’ve cranked it up again as of yesterday at We intend to get 100,000 or more organic consumers and sustainable ag-minded folks across — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Just repeat your last — Ronnie Cummins, just repeat your last two sentences, please. You just got a little hung up there.

RONNIE CUMMINS: OK. We’ve started an online campaign at We need to send a message from hundreds of thousands of organic consumers and sustainable-minded Americans to Obama, to the Senate and to Vilsack, that we want big change, not small change, and that we need to start moving this country toward an energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering, healthy food and farming system that is organic and in transition to organic. We don’t need these biofuels. We don’t need genetically engineered crops. We need to take the climate crisis, the public health crisis, the food crisis seriously and do something about it. We need major change, not small change.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, thanks for being with us, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, speaking to us from his office in Finland, Minnesota via Skype. Brian Moore, you’ll stay with us to talk about the pick of Ken Salazar as head of — well, Secretary of the Interior. Brian Moore, with the National Audubon Society.

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