Tom Vilsack

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Former Iowa Governor and pro-biotech lobbyist Tom Vilsack was appointed US secretary of agriculture by President Barack Obama in 2009.

This was a disappointment to more than 60,000 supporters of organic and sustainable farming, who sent emails opposing the nomination of Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, to no avail.[1]

Pharma crop supporter

Vilsack has come under fire for his support for genetically engineered (GM) pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn:

Gov. Tom Vilsack said a decision by a biotechnical industry group not to grow genetically engineered corn for pharmaceutical purposes in states such as Iowa is "a dangerous precedent."
"I feel this decision by for a pharma-crop ban is a knee-jerk reaction that is not fully warranted by the scientific evidence," Vilsack wrote in a letter to the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The group said this week that its members had agreed not to grow pharmaceutical crops in states where it could contaminate neighboring crops intended for human consumption. That includes Iowa, and Vilsack reacted quickly, dashing off a letter asking the group for a clarification of its policy... Vilsack has said the state could have a bright future in developing genetically engineered crops for the pharmaceutical industry.[2]

Industry accolade

In 2001 the biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.[3]

Vilsack falls victim to "bad idea virus"

In 2002 Vilsack created the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a $503 million appropriation designed to boost Iowa's economy by offering grants to corporations and initiatives pledged to create higher-income jobs. Vilsack's first poster child of economic development potential was biotech company Trans Ova and its pursuit of cloning dairy cows. Vilsack proclaimed, "Iowa begins today an effort to break the genetic code of economic development."[4]

Not everyone shared Vilsack's faith that Trans Ova would regenerate Iowa's economy. According to information gathered by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau but never made public, Trans Ova was one of "two big business projects given incentives through the Iowa Values Fund [that] actually will cost the state money in the long run, despite the increased economic activity they bring."

The data, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press, says incentives and services offered to Trans Ova Genetics "eventually will cost the state more than it will receive in tax revenues."[5]

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysts are not alone in their take on the ability of biotech to save regional economies. While tax breaks and government grants are offered to attract biotech firms to set up in regions, returns have often been disappointing and there has been a rash of bankruptcies in the biotech sector as firms fail to produce and market the miracle products they promise. According to an Associated Press report, "for all its promise, the biotechnology industry has lost a combined $40 billion since its inception in 1976"[6]:

"This notion that you lure biotech to your community to save its economy is laughable," said Joseph Cortright, a Portland, Oregon economist who co-wrote a report[7] on the subject. "This is a bad-idea virus that has swept through governors, mayors and economic development officials."[8]

Vilsack helps make local GM bans illegal

According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), as Iowa Governor, Vilsack originated the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, which prevents state governments from instituting local bans and restrictions on genetically modified (GM) seeds and crops. Many people in Iowa fought this bill on the grounds that it takes away their right to choose what is grown on their soil. The OCA states that Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged on the House Floor that Vilsack put her up to it right after his state of the state address.[9]

Vilsack is an ardent supporter of corn and soy based biofuels, which use as much or more fossil energy to produce them as they generate, while driving up world food prices and literally starving the poor.[10]

Robert Bryce, writing in The Guardian about Obama's decision to choose Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, noted that the decision followed hard on the heels of lobbying by a biofuels industry group:

On Tuesday, Stephen Power of the Wall Street Journal reported that Barack Obama's transition team has been talking to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) – the trade group funded by the corn ethanol producers – about a bail-out for the ethanol industry. And on Wednesday, Obama announced that the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, would be the next secretary of agriculture. Announcing the selection, Obama said Vilsack would be part of the "team we need" to strengthen rural America, create "green jobs" and "to free our nation from its dependence on oil".[11]

External resources

Vilsack's response to his critics: "What About the OCA?", Support Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture website, accessed February 2009.

Ronnie Cummins, "Tom Vilsack's Kind of Agriculture: Another Shill for Monsanto", CounterPunch, 18 December 2008, accessed February 2009.

"You Said NO to Vilsack", Organic Consumers Association, accessed February 2009.

"Obama Picks Pro-Ethanol, Agribusiness Ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to Head Agricultural Dept.", Organic Consumers Association video, Democracy Now website, accessed February 2009.




  1. Jim Goodman, "Editorial: Vilsack Not the Right Choice for Ag Secretary", McClatchy/Tribune, 20 January 2009, accessed February 2009.
  2. Mike Glover, "Vilsack, Gross weigh in on biotech decision", Associated Press, 24 October 2002, accessed January 2009.
  3. "Iowa’s Vilsack Named BIO Governor of the Year", press release, Biotechnology Industry Organization, 20 September 2001, accessed January 2009.
  4. Kathie Obradovich, "Sioux Center, Iowa, Biotech Company to Receive $9 Million for Expansion", Waterloo Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), via Knight-Ridder/TribuneBusiness News 28 August 2003, accessed February 2009.
  5. "Iowa Values Fund: Drain, not gain, forecast for big incentive awards", Des Moines Register via Associated Press, 28 January 2005, accessed February 2009.
  6. Paul Elias, "States, cities court biotech, but is it worth it?", USA Today via Associated Press, 6 October 2004, accessed February 2009.
  7. Joseph Cortright and Heike Meyer, "Signs of Life: The Growth of Biotechnology Centers in the US", The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, 2002, accessed February 2009.
  8. Paul Elias, "States, cities court biotech, but is it worth it?", USA Today via Associated Press, 6 October 2004, accessed February 2009.
  9. Jim Kouri, "[Organic Consumers Oppose Vilsack Appointment as Agriculture Secretary]", Axcess News, 7 January 2009, accessed February 2009.
  10. "A Note on Rising Food Prices. Donald Mitchell. World Bank report, 2008; "[ Soaring Food Prices: Facts, Perspectives, Impacts and Actions Required". United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation conference and report, Rome, 3-5 June 2008
  11. Robert Bryce, "Obama buys the biofuel hype: Ethanol production won't solve America's energy problems – a fact Obama and his agriculture secretary don't seem to grasp", The Guardian, 19 December 2008, accessed February 2009.