From USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack: A Failure to Communicate

Four years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, some Americans are losing confidence that the conventional wisdom at our disposal, whether liberal or conservative, is capable of restoring the financial security and opportunity we once enjoyed. Albert Einstein’s observation that “We can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” captures one strain of this resignation. Now another cyclical cataclysm is inviting comparison to the ravages of the 1930’s: the escalating crop losses and parched heartland landscapes from the drought of 2012 evoke the desperation of the Dust Bowl as their natural antecedent. Could this unfolding crisis similarly undermine the agricultural conventional wisdom which most Americans and both major political parties complacently believe produces the world’s cheapest, safest and most abundant food supply?

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is the Obama Administration’s point guard for staying the course by preventing the drought of 2012 from further revealing the deep fissures and failures which characterize contemporary industrial agriculture. As an Iowan lawyer and former state legislator and governor who has long championed industrial agriculture, Secretary Vilsack is well cast for this role. His recent comments on the Marketplace radio program and to reporters at a White House press conference are gold medal-worthy for staying on message. Here’s the script: climate conditions of unknown causation have temporarily diminished our agricultural production capacity and jeopardized many farmers’ livelihoods; however, more of the policies that brought us here will reverse these setbacks and consumers should not expect food prices to rise significantly. Forgive me for hearing echoes of President Herbert Hoover’s declaration in 1932 that “Prosperity is just around the corner.”

The most disturbing assertion in Secretary Vilsack’s public comments on the drought has been his consistent refusal to acknowledge the potential link to global climate change. When directly questioned about climate change at the White House on July 18, Secretary Vilsack responded, “I’m not a scientist so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this.” If the Secretary applied this standard of expertise to every question he received, his press conferences would be much shorter. Senior leaders in Washington can opine on their ample portfolios because they are briefed by the subject experts who work for them. Doubtlessly the Secretary is briefed by the USDA staff working for the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program which just identified July 2012 as the hottest month ever recorded in the United States, exceeding the 20th century July average by 3.3° F. To speak from the White House that same month and feign ignorance about the causes and consequences of climate change does not convey a sincere commitment to an honest inquiry into the true nature of our dilemma.

The Secretary’s evasiveness about the connection between climate change and this summer’s drought isn’t the only loose thread within the frayed fabric of his defense of the status quo. There is no tenet of this defense that the industrial agricultural establishment clings to more tenaciously than the assertion that genetic engineering is already delivering otherwise unachievable benefits and promises to resolve ancient, intractable curses from drought to poverty and malnutrition. Secretary Vilsack referenced this conviction in his White House comments, stating that, “Long term, we will continue to look at weather patterns, and we’ll continue to do research and to make sure that we work with our seed companies to create the kinds of seeds that will be more effective in dealing with adverse weather conditions.” Without question he was referring to seeds such as the MON 87460 corn variety introduced this year by Monsanto, a “stacked” seed genetically engineered to tolerate drought which also contains DNA inserted to both express a pesticide (for corn earworm) and survive a pesticide ( glyphosate, commercially known as RoundUp).

Secretary Vilsack’s confidence in the Trojan Horse of genetically engineered seeds reflects how poorly the American public grasps the consistent failure of this technology to deliver on its promises while instead inflicting dire environmental, economic and ultimately social injury. After nearly twenty years of commercial adoption, genetically engineered seeds have not appreciably increased yields (traditional seed breeding practices still do) and have only temporarily mitigated the environmental impact of pesticides. The imminent introduction of corn and soybean seeds engineered to withstand 2,4 D – one of the extremely hazardous herbicides that the first generation of RoundUp Ready varieties were marketed as permanently replacing – will produce a dramatic spike in cumulative pesticide toxicity. Without providing a single, substantive direct benefit to consumers, genetically engineered seeds are accelerating the concentration of commodity agriculture in the Unites States which drives smaller farmers out of business and pushes marginal, environmentally sensitive land into production. The interests of farmers and consumers have always been secondary to the economic gain and market control of the chemical giants behind genetically engineered seeds.

The causes, consequences and ultimate outcomes of the Dust Bowl do make an apt antecedent for examining the 2012 drought, though the correct connections are seldom drawn. Far from reflecting the failure of some primitive or subsistence form of agriculture, the Dust Bowl arose from an early incarnation of industrial agriculture. Commodity production (wheat) destined for an export market (Europe, incapable of feeding itself during and after WWI) and aided by new technology (gasoline powered tractors) led farmers to rapidly expand and intensify cultivation on the ancient arid grasslands of the southern Great Plains. In its current iteration, we pour fossil fuels (fertilizer and diesel) and chemical or transgenic pesticides across tens of millions of acres to produce continuous corn and soybeans sold for processing into livestock feed, high fructose corn syrup and ethanol. Are the great plumes of top soil from Kansas and New Mexico that darkened skies in the 1930s different than the eroded top soil from across the Mississippi Basin that runs down the Big Muddy to feed the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico today?

Let’s consider a final misrepresentation from Secretary Vilsack’s comments to Marketplace about the meaning of this summer’s drought. Looking back in time, the Secretary commented that, “We’ve basically seen the United States go from the 1930s, where we were struggling to meet our food needs, to being the largest producer or one of the largest producers of food in the world, able to meet our own needs and able to also export.” It’s incorrect to imply that American farmers failed to satisfy the domestic demand for food during the Great Depression and an objective appraisal of food security in the United States today quickly demolishes the assertion that we are currently meeting our own needs. Then as now, there has been no shortage of domestic food production to satisfy our needs; the pitfall has been with consumers who are either incapable or unwilling to pay prices that will keep farmers on the land and in business.

The Roosevelt Administration responded boldly and wisely to the agricultural crisis of the 1930s by implementing supply control measures that guaranteed farmers sufficient income while rewarding them for sound conservation practices. These measures, which came to be known as the Farm Bill, ushered in a generation of high quality, low cost food produced in an environmentally responsible manner. Regrettably, this approach was largely abandoned beginning in the 1970s in pursuit of an ever more technologically-driven and globally-oriented system that is ostensibly more equitable because it responds to private capital more so than government control. As an increasing number of Americans are becoming concerned with where their food comes from and how it is produced, we need look no further for guidance on the future of farming than the wisdom of Henry Wallace, another Iowan and the architect of those monumentally successful New Deal agricultural reforms:

Many people blame science for our surplus of farm products. They say that science taught us how to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. I think the trouble is that is exactly what science did not teach us. Instead it taught us how to grow something else where two blades of grass grew before. Now we are beginning to see the weaknesses of an agriculture stripped of grass. More and more we are turning in thought and practice toward an agriculture in which grass will act as the great balance wheel and stabilizer to prevent gluts of other crops—to save soil from destruction—to build up a reserve of nutrients and moisture in the soil, ready for any future emergency, to create a more prosperous livestock industry, and finally to contribute to the health of our people through better nutrition*.

*From a radio speech delivered on June 21, 1940 entitled “The Strength and Quietness of Grass”.

Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production.  He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets.  Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.


  1. Valerie Niederhoffer says

    I just found your website thru using the old search engine.Thanks for thoughts on food. I, too, am concerned with how my food is produced. It is terribly sad that many Americans still do not know what the terms Organic and GMOs mean. They are content with taking the wrong pill. They believe that everything sold in the supermarket is safe.

  2. Stephanie says

    At once you seem to be suggesting that the answer is government controls that balance production with conservation AND a population that is demanding to know where their food comes from. The latter point seems to be more reflective of ‘responding to capital,’ which you seem to point towards as what’s gone wrong in the modern agriculture system. It’s my view that this is a system that is somewhat incapable of responding to one kind of demand/capital (via consumers who want to know where their food comes from) because of the entrenched interests that force responding to another kind of capital (via powerful interests who are more concerned with finacializing the food system than with feeding people).

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