Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organics industry weighs in on Vilsack as Ag Secretary

By Cara Hopkins

Despite vocal opposition from groups such as the Organic Consumer Association, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack sailed through his two-hour confirmation hearing yesterday. He will most likely be confirmed as President-elect Obama's agriculture secretary on Jan 20.

The pressure from some in the organics industry for Congress to reject Vilsack's nomination had been building over the past several weeks, with the OCA collecting 40,000 signatures in opposition. A press release from the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog group, called Vilsack, "an Iowa lawyer with strong past backing for genetic engineering and a close relationship with corporate agribusiness interests."

However, prior to yesterday's hearing, others in the organics industry came out in support of Vilsack.

Walter Robb, co-president and chief operating officer of Whole Foods Market, said in a statement, "I want to be clear that I do not agree with Gov. Vilsack on every issue, most notably GMOs. Nor would I expect to with any individual nominated. But I also know that he understands organic farming, the importance of small farms, and the value of the local food economy." Robb drew on his personal experiences with Vilsack to add, "I know he will be open and listen, will broaden the conversation to include all perspectives, will look for a new fusion of common sense and vision, and will change and evolve based on new information and evidence."

In a re-cap of the hearing, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, lauded Vilsack's statement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to "celebrate and support" organics and should treat it as "one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes."

Jylle Lardaro, director, Organic Industry Alliances, New Hope Natural Media, (NFM's parent company) said that she finds it "encouraging" that Vilsack "included rural America and small farms in the discussion of the ‘culture of agriculture' and the policies surrounding it."

Now that Vilsack will most likely be confirmed, the question becomes how the new agriculture secretary will ease concerns among his most strident critics.

"As with any politician," Lardaro said, "a good working relationship needs the understanding that they have a diverse constituency to serve and not everyone is going to be happy. Threats won't work, but communicating top priorities consistently will. Advocacy groups will have to pick their battles, be more transparent about where their money comes from — who their financial supporters are — and demonstrate tangibly their value to consumers (Consumers Union does a good job with this)."

To further bridge the gap, the Cornucopia Institute is urging Vilsack to select "progressive agricultural policy experts" such as James Riddle, organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota and former chairman of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board, or Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., another former USDA administrator and food policy professor at Tufts University, as sub-Cabinet appointees.

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