by Eileen Weber
The confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack, Barrack Obama’s pick for Secretary of Agriculture, will take place on January 14th. To some, that comes as good news. Political pundits have noted Vilsack’s background as a former governor of Iowa as well as his shared viewpoints with Obama. They both support the use of biofuel, reducing our dependency on foreign oil, and climate change.
“As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, [Vilsack] led with vision promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future,” said Obama of Vilsack’s appointment on December 17th, “that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.”
But others, like Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, are a little apprehensive about the challenges facing Vilsack in his new role. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) on December 18th, Pollan said that the former governor’s appointment may just turn out to be “agribusiness as usual”.
“It’s the embrace of corn-based ethanol that has driven up all food prices,” said Pollan. “It’s not making agriculture more sustainable.” Ethanol, incidentally, is a key source of revenue for Vilsack’s home state of Iowa.
Pollan, who has been very vocal on the subject recently, had made similar statements about the position for Secretary of Agriculture in an earlier interview with NPR in November. He had also written an open letter in October to the President-Elect in the New York Times suggesting a complete overhaul in the way we conduct the business of agriculture.
Prior to Vilsack’s appointment, there were calls to appoint Pollan. In fact, there were a few web sites petitioning on Pollan’s behalf to take on the role of what he termed should be the “Secretary of Food”. Pollan, however, was not interested. But he was quoted in a blog by Steph Larsen of Ethicurean.com as saying that perhaps the “floating of my name will push the center a bit.”
How far our food travels is a growing concern for many Americans. Long distance transportation of meats and produce uses large quantities of fossil fuels and carbon emissions. And, the average American meal travels 1,500 miles to reach its plate.
When food grown locally is then shipped across the continent to be packaged and then shipped back to its origin to be sold, something is wrong with our system. But it doesn’t end there.
"The food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases," Pollan told NPR. "It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs."
To Pollan’s point, corn-based foods, particularly high fructose corn syrup which can be found in almost every processed food on your supermarket shelf, are keeping us overweight. Children are fatter. Adults are fatter. We have more weight-related health problems than we did only a few decades ago, diabetes not least among them. All of this is related to what we put in our mouths.
Whatever Vilsack does during the next presidential term, this certainly qualifies a time for change. It is clear that we need fewer processed foods and more natural, sustainable foods grown locally and with a minimal carbon footprint.
These are the issues that will face Vilsack once he takes office and the Obama Administration moves forward. Only time will tell what lies ahead for the food we eat.