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Daily News Blog

14
Dec

Open Letter to Biden-Appointed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack: Moving Forward, Meeting Challenges, Correcting the Past

(Beyond Pesticides, December 14, 2020) As the President-elect chooses the leadership in his administration, it is critical that we in the affected communities establish our expectations of what is needed from agencies to address critical issues of the day. While we may feel that different choices of personnel could have been made, ultimately we are looking forward to advancing programs across all agencies that represent meaningful and foundational changes to our social, economic, and environmental norms. As we focus on the appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture, issues of foundational change come into sharp focus, relating to sustainable land management, distribution of resources and access to land, food security, protection of human and ecosystem health, and climate. It is normal, therefore, to look at any individual appointee’s past performance and positions as a measure of future decisions or policies that may be advanced. Ultimately, though, it is the administration that sets the tone, establishes a framework, and forges the direction of the government’s programs and policies. President-elect Biden has talked about a framework for policy to which we can and must hold all officials in the administration accountable across all agencies. These key elements of the framework intersect with the protection of health and the environment (including agriculture): (i) science-based decision-making, (ii) systemic change to solve societal problems, (iii) phase out of fossil fuel, and (iv) fight against environmental racism with disproportionate risk imposed on people of color.

Judging from his past record, President-elect Biden’s announced pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, will need to dramatically change many previous positions in order to implement the elements of President-elect Biden’s policy framework. Within this framework, the overall policy priorities of the President-elect include addressing the climate crisis, racial equity, COVID-19, and economic recovery. His “Plan for Rural America” includes helping family farms and other small and medium-sized farms, building a clean energy future, advancing racial equity in rural America, expanding protections for farmworkers, ensuring adequate health care in rural areas, and conserving public lands. These priorities cannot be achieved with chemical-intensive farming practices that rely on petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers, and bioengineered crops, or continued support for corporate industrial agriculture that undermines the health of people and communities. Therefore, a systemic shift to organic agriculture will be required to meet these priorities.

Organic agriculture practices combat the climate crisis by:

  • Reducing Emissions of Nitrogen Oxides. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers in chemical-intensive agriculture is driving global nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions higher, putting the world at greater risk of a climate catastrophe, and failure to adequately address nitrous oxide emissions has the potential to impede the ability for the world to keep warming below the 2°C target established under the Paris Climate Agreement, necessitating further cuts in other greenhouse gasses.
  • Sequestering carbon. Regenerative organic systems, which eliminate toxic, petroleum-based pesticides that kill microbial life in the soil, sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere into on-farm soil carbon and could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions.
  • Preserving natural lands and biodiversity. Natural forests are more effective than tree plantations in sequestering carbon. Preserving natural land increases biodiversity, which also reduces dependence on petroleum-based pesticides.

There is no racial justice without environmental justice, and this is particularly true in agriculture. In chemical-intensive agriculture, farmworkers are exposed to toxic agricultural chemicals. Farmworkers are predominately people of color, and dangers to them are discounted in the risk assessments used in the registration of pesticides. Materials used in organic agriculture must not endanger humans or the environment, but non-organic foods—even those with low residues of pesticides on the product—endanger workers and the environment.

Organic food offers greater health benefits in certain key areas, such as total antioxidant capacity, total polyphenols, and two key flavonoids, quercetin and kaempferol, all of which are nutritionally significant. Organic dairy products contain significantly higher beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins. Organic food production prohibits toxic pesticide use, as distinguished from chemical-intensive agriculture and reduces existing levels of pesticides detected in children and adults. Drinking organic milk can eliminate exposure to pesticide, antibiotic, and synthetic growth hormone residues in those dairy products.

Organic farming is good for the economy. It is more resilient and buffered from economic risk, compared to chemical-intensive agriculture. Greater crop diversity, as required by organic standards, contributes to greater agricultural employment.

Mr. Vilsack, who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration, allowed the weakening of organic review procedures by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), ignored several NOSB recommendations, and advanced “coexistence” with the expansion of genetically engineered (GE) crops that are responsible for genetic drift, polluting non-GE and organic crops. The expansion of GE crops led to an explosion of glyphosate (Roundup) use, widespread food contamination, as well as the growth of dicamba and 2,4-D, which resulted in vast crop damage and contamination from drift throughout the Midwest. This growth in GE crops has led to insect and weed resistance to pesticides, increased reliance on toxic chemicals, destruction of wildlife habitat, and economic harm to farmers. As Branko Marcetic wrote in In These Times, “While his tenure wasn’t uni­form­ly bad—Vil­sack resist­ed Repub­li­can attacks on food stamps and upped fed­er­al sup­port for organ­ic food—he angered pro­gres­sive groups by let­ting poul­try fac­to­ries self-reg­u­late, speed­ing up the approval process for GMO crops, shelving new reg­u­la­tions on big agri­cul­ture at the industry’s behest, and step­ping in to craft an indus­try-friend­ly nation­al GMO-labeling bill intend­ed to replace a pio­neer­ing stricter stan­dard in Ver­mont.”

In addition, his record on racial justice has been criticized by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), National Black Farmers Association, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and others. The NBFJA points to actions taken under Vilsack’s previous leadership:

  • Routine denial of loans to Black farmers that were easily obtained by white farmers and decreased the overall dollars loaned to Black farmers;
  • Failure to take discrimination complaints seriously;
  • Foreclosure of Black farmers who had pending discrimination complaints;
  • Failure to adequately compensate Black farmers with valid claims;
  • Wrongfully forcing out Shirley Sherrod, the former head of USDA rural development in Georgia and a well-respected civil rights leader;
  • Prioritizing the profits of the poultry industry over the health and safety of working people and families; and
  • Collusion in the distortion of data regarding race, farming, and land.

Mr. Vilsack is currently president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which promotes the sale of conventional, chemical-intensive dairy products—typically produced by factory farms. The Council’s literature gives a misleading description of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Will Mr. Vilsack support strong organic dairy standards?

Dear Secretary Vilsack: [Send this message to Secretary Vilsack. Click here.]

With your appointment to Secretary of Agriculture in the Biden administration, we appreciate your commitment to government service and would like you to open a dialogue on critical issues to the future health of our agricultural system, the people who labor in it, and the environment in which it operates. President-elect Biden has set an important framework in which to make transformational changes in confronting existential crises that directly intersect with agriculture. Key elements of the framework that intersect with the protection of health and the environment (including agriculture) are: (i) science-based decision-making, (ii) systemic change to solve societal problems, (iii) phase out of fossil fuel, and (iv) fight against environmental racism with disproportionate risk imposed on people of color.

Within this framework, the overall policy priorities of the President-elect include addressing the climate crisis, racial equity, COVID-19, and economic recovery. His “Plan for Rural America” includes helping family farms and other small and medium-sized farms, building a clean energy future, advancing racial equity in rural America, expanding protections for farmworkers, ensuring adequate health care in rural areas, and conserving public lands. These priorities cannot be achieved with chemical-intensive farming practices that rely on petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers, and bioengineered crops, or continued support for corporate industrial agriculture that undermines the health of people and communities. Therefore, a systemic shift to organic agriculture will be required to meet these priorities by:

*Reducing Emissions of Nitrogen Oxides. Failure to adequately address nitrous oxide emissions may impede the ability for the world to keep warming below the 2°C target established under the Paris Climate Agreement.

*Sequestering carbon. Regenerative organic systems sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere into soil carbon.

*Preserving natural lands and biodiversity. Natural forests help sequester carbon and reduce dependence on petroleum-based pesticides.

You are certainly aware that there have been points of disagreements with policy positions, relating to action and inaction on critical issues. We are terribly  concerned about allowing the weakening of organic review procedures by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), ignoring NOSB recommendations to strengthen organic integrity, while promoting “coexistence” with the expansion of genetically engineered (GE) crops that are responsible for genetic drift, polluting non-GE and organic crops. As we hope you’re aware, the expansion of GE crops led to an explosion of glyphosate (Roundup) use, widespread food contamination, as well as the growth of dicamba and 2,4-D, which resulted in vast crop damage and contamination from drift throughout the Midwest. This growth in GE crops has led to insect and weed resistance to pesticides, increased reliance on toxic chemicals, destruction of wildlife habitat, and economic harm to farmers. As Branko Marcetic wrote in In These Times, “While his tenure wasn’t uni­form­ly bad—Vil­sack resist­ed Repub­li­can attacks on food stamps and upped fed­er­al sup­port for organ­ic food—he angered pro­gres­sive groups by let­ting poul­try fac­to­ries self-reg­u­late, speed­ing up the approval process for GMO crops, shelv­ing new reg­u­la­tions on big agri­cul­ture at the industry’s behest, and step­ping in to craft an indus­try-friend­ly nation­al GMO-labeling bill intend­ed to replace a pio­neer­ing stricter stan­dard in Ver­mont.”

We appreciate the mandate of the new administration to think big and take on structural problems with systemic changes. In this context, we look forward to working with you to urgently address the existential threats to health, environment, racial equity, and economic security associated with current agricultural policy and practices.

Thank you.
Beyond Pesticides

 

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