Posted by: beyonddinner | January 27, 2009

Secretary of Agriculture’s priorities

Tom Vilsack, the new Secretary of Agriculture held a teleconference and announced his priorities:

  • Combating childhood obesity and enhancing health and nutrition, indicating that the Department should play a key role in the public health debate and that nutrition programs should be seen as an opportunity to both alleviate hunger and prevent health care problems.
  • Advancing research and development and pursuing opportunities to support the development of biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources, saying that USDA needs to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive recent market challenges while promoting policies that will accelerate the development of next-generation biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve our energy independence.
  • Making progress on major environmental challenges, including climate change. Vilsack said it’s important that farmers and ranchers play a role with USDA in efforts to promote incentives for management practices that provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Supporting the profitability of farmers and ranchers by providing a safety net that works for all of agriculture, including independent producers and local and organic agriculture, and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act.
  • Quickly implementing the 2008 Farm Bill; modernizing the food safety system; and investing in programs that alleviate hunger and suffering overseas and support long-term agriculture development.
  • Restoring the mission of the Forest Service as a protector of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat; a provider of recreation opportunities; a key player in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Vilsack indicated that it is important that we appropriately budget for wildfires so that the Forest Service has the resources it needs for both wildfires and its other missions.

They all sound good on the surface, but it will so depend on how they are implemented. For example, with the first one about nutrition and the USDA playing a role in the public health debate, the USDA has so far given us very flawed food pyramid that has been heavily influenced by corporate interests – particular meat and dairy interests. At least today’s pyramid mentions beans along with meat – but it still mentions dairy as the main way to get calcium even thought that’s a poor way to get it since it causes just as much calcium loss as calcium gain.

The biofuels piece scares me – especially since it doesn’t mention balancing between crops for food versus crops for biofuels.  I don’t think we want to promote a food crisis by devoting too much land and crops to fuel while creating shortages in food crops.  I hope thats what he is referring to in the bullet about the Farm Bill.

I’m interested in the 3rd and 4th bullets.  They sound like a way to get a start in supporting sustainable practices alongside the awful current industrial practices.  We’ll see.  I’d imagine it’s pretty much impossible to overhaul the current system in one set of sweeping actions – instead I think it will have to be a gradual move to better methods, creating positive role models that others can learn from.  I hope we have enough time to make a good effort towards real change before the climate really tanks.

I’ll stay a skeptic but keep watching out for some promising actions.  It’s fun to keep watch of the USDA through their RSS feeds!



  1. 1) Hopefully lobbyists will be kicked down and science will prevail in this administration. Then, perhaps, we could see a more reasonable/realistic food pyramid.

    2) I definitely understand your concern about biofuels, but when Vilsack says he wants to “accelerate the development of next-generation biofuels ” it makes me think he’s looking for something a lot better than corn ethanol.

    3) It would be difficult to make sweeping changes to the system in a financial best-case-scenario. So, with our economy in the dumps and trillians of dollars in debt, this task will be even more arduous.

    I would love to get your comments on my play-by-play analysis of Vilsack’s priorities. You can find it at


  2. Thanks for letting me know about your blog! I’ve added it to my RSS reader. It’s right up my alley. I liked your analysis of the USDA’s new priorities and happily left a comment.

  3. Likewise about RSS feeding your blog. Thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I’ve returned the favor.

    Also, just to let you know, Marion Nestle is now using as her blog and general info site, instead of


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