Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack nominated as secretary of agriculture

by Jay Sjerven
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CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama on Dec. 17 introduced former two-term Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his nominee for secretary of agriculture. Mr. Obama praised Mr. Vilsack, saying, "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 we use. Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oilfields abroad but in our farm fields at home."

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Vilsack pledged to help provide "American leadership on climate change and making America truly dedicated to health and nutrition."

Mr. Vilsack was first elected governor of Iowa in 1998. He balanced Iowa’s budget and resisted raising taxes, but he was willing to invest in education and health care. He also was a firm advocate of developing alternative energy sources to reduce dependence on oil and bolster rural economies and was a proponent of biotechnology research. He led governor groups considering biotechnology, ethanol and other Midwestern issues and eventually was head of the Democratic Governors Association.

Mr. Vilsack briefly was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, but he dropped out of the race in early 2007 and became a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. After Mrs. Clinton withdrew her candidacy, Mr. Vilsack campaigned for Senator Obama.

Mr. Vilsack recently was co-chairman with former-Governor George Pataki of New York of a task force on climate change commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations. The task force issued a report calling for an overhaul of U.S. climate change strategy, including the approach to international negotiations to develop a successor treaty to the Kyoto protocols, which President Bill Clinton signed but President George W. Bush rejected.

Notable among the task force’s recommendations were proposals to phase out subsidies for "mature biofuels such as conventional corn-based ethanol" and to reduce tariffs on foreign biofuels as long as changes to the tariffs "do not ultimately encourage increased emissions."

The Vilsack’s nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the committee’s chairman, said of the nomination, "Tom Vilsack has a strong record in Iowa on building opportunities in renewable energy, conservation, food and nutrition, experience that will serve him well as secretary of agriculture. With our economy in a downturn, Tom Vilsack knows how to bring change that will rebuild rural economies and keep them vibrant."

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa reacted positively to the nomination, "I think Iowa is going to benefit from it. American agriculture is going to benefit from it. And more specifically, within agriculture, the institution of the family farm, because it’s 95% of how agriculture in Iowa is conducted, it’s going to strengthen the voice of the American institution of the family farm in the U.S.D.A."

Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who led a fight to overhaul farm programs and slash crop subsidies on the floor of the House, said, "Tom Vilsack has a strong commitment to land and water conservation policy and has indicated a desire to reform U.S.D.A. agriculture payments, including a tighter cap on commodity subsidies. It is my hope that these beliefs, coupled with President-elect Obama’s recent commitment to combat waste in subsidy programs, will result in meaningful reforms."

Scott W. Openshaw, director of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, "Mr. Obama and his administration have done an outstanding job in putting together the right team. The appointment of Governor Vilsack to head the U.S.D.A. is a continuation of that. Specifically, we view this as a great opportunity for U.S.D.A. to lead the way to change course when it comes to our nation’s biofuel policy, moving away from the promotion of corn ethanol and toward energy solutions that do not pit our energy needs against our need for affordable food and enhanced environmental protections.

"As co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations task force on climate change, Governor Vilsack indicated his understanding of the need our country has to phase out domestic subsidies for mature biofuels such as conventional corn-based ethanol and focus on second-generation, non-food crop biofuel technologies," Mr. Openshaw added.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 23, 2008, starting on Page 20. Click here to search that archive.

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