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Daily News Blog

08
Oct

Ag Secretary Vilsack Pushes Petroleum Farming Inputs, Fights EU’s Climate-Friendly Organic “Food to Fork’ Initiative

(Beyond Pesticides, October 8, 2021) Taking a page from the playbook of Trump Administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the current secretary, Tom Vilsack, used a September G20 summit in Italy to target the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” (F2F) strategy, a part of its European Green Deal. Mr. Perdue had said that F2F is “more . . . ‘political science’ than demonstrated agricultural science”; Secretary Vilsack called it “a path very different from the one the U.S. is pursuing.” The F2F initiative aims to transition the EU to a sustainable food system such that it also achieves significant mitigation of climate change. But Mr. Vilsack chose to counter the F2F efforts by promoting an “alternative strategy” — under the moniker “Coalition for Productivity Growth” — through which “other nations pledge not to follow the European path on farm policy.” He has described this alternative, U.S.-led strategy as “a market-oriented, incentive-based, voluntary system [that] is effective” at slashing agricultural carbon emissions.

Climate, pesticide, organics, and other environmental and health advocates, including Beyond Pesticides, are troubled by these actions. Mother Jones poses the central question in the headline of its September 30 article: Why is Secretary Vilsack So Afraid of a Plan to Cut Pesticides and Meat? The central F2F tenets that the secretary seems to find unnerving are those that would slash use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and move one-quarter of European farmland to organic production by 2030.

Mother Jones writes, “The Farm to Fork program, part of the European Commission’s response to the continent’s own accelerating climate chaos and steady rise in illnesses related to highly processed food, aims to ‘make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly.’ At its heart lies the goal of slashing farmers’ reliance on water-polluting, energy-intensive agrochemicals: It requires a 20 percent drop in fertilizer use by 2030, and a 50 percent cut in pesticides. The plan . . . also mandates a 50 percent reduction [in] food waste; calls on farmers to halve their use of antibiotics for livestock, a key driver in the global crisis of antibiotic resistance in human medicine; and aims to nudge Europeans to adopt a ‘diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables.’”

The EU’s F2F strategy — housed within the European Green Deal — is a comprehensive plan to address the climate emergency, and to improve and protect environmental and human health. The F2F strategy sets out a framework for “building a food chain that works for consumers, producers, climate, and the environment.” Elements of the plan include ensuring production levels and food security; extending sustainability practices into the processing, wholesaling, and retail sectors; facilitating a shift to more-healthful diets; reducing food loss and waste; rectifying “food fraud” in supply chains; and supporting research, technology, and investment for the transition to a far more sustainable food system.

The European Commission’s (EC’s) official F2F strategy document emphasizes the “urgent need to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.” That plan description notes that, because of the groundwork already laid, EU agriculture is the only major production system in the world that has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions in recent years — by 20% over 1990 levels. It aims to increase that to 55% by 2030. The EC wants food produced in the EU to become the “gold standard” for sustainability.

Secretary Vilsack apparently believes that, enacted dominantly across the globe, the tenets of F2F would “reduce crop yields, push up food prices and threaten food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released economic models saying world food production would drop by 11 percent and prices would shoot up 89 percent if all countries followed the European model,” according to Politico. The secretary commented, “The world’s got to get fed, and it’s got to get fed in a sustainable way. And we can’t basically sacrifice one for the other.”

His USDA is alarmed at the prospect that this EU approach might spread and result in more trade barriers that could limit markets for U.S. agricultural goods. With intensifying impacts of a worsening climate and pesticide use, he may have a point. In recent years and in the absence of global standards, concerns in Europe and some other countries about intense U.S. use of synthetic pesticides and genetically engineered/modified seeds and foodstuffs have led to restrictions on the import of some U.S. goods.

For example, France is currently seeking to bar food imports produced under what it considers lax environmental, health, and worker standards. Mexico’s announcement of its proposed plan to ban glyphosate and genetically modified maize set some U.S. officials’ hair on fire — so much so that they worked alongside agrichemical companies to persuade President Obrador to quash it. This notion that the U.S. is seen as having inferior standards looms for Big Ag as a threat to its business model and bottom line. Politico writes, “Vilsack’s overarching fear is that Europe would use its diverging food standards to throw up more barriers to trade.”

Now, Secretary Vilsack is assembling an unsavory coalition of the willing, and looking for more adherents, to reject the EU model and pledge to use the industry-friendly approach to agriculture-related environmental policy he is promoting. (The secretary claims there are 10–15 countries interested, though has not publicly named them.) He is pushing the Coalition for Productivity Growth approach, which he hopes will sway producers away from the EU’s F2F model. To date, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has joined this effort, and the secretary is courting Brazil to do the same.

The secretary’s choice to partner with these two countries could hardly be more transparent, some advocates say. The UAE does very little farming (it imports 80% of its food), but it has huge reserves of oil and natural gas — the latter being the primary feedstock for the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Such fertilizers are critical to industrial food production in the ag-intensive regions of the United States and Europe.

Mother Jones reports that Brazil is captive to the products of the same agrochemical giants as is the U.S. — Bayer (owner of Monsanto), Syngenta (owned by China), and Corteva (the merger product of Dow and DuPont) — and is the third largest user of synthetic pesticides, behind the U.S. and China. Pesticide use in the country is reportedly rampant. The Bolsonaro-appointed agriculture minister Tereza Cristina — whom environmental journalists have dubbed the “muse of poison” — greenlighted 262 new synthetic pesticides in the seven months of her first year in office (2019); 82 of those were identified by Brazil’s own National Health Surveillance Agency as “extremely toxic.”

Given these facts, it is no surprise that the UAE, and perhaps Brazil, as well as industry groups, such as the International Fertilizer Development Center and the North American Meat Institute, are already on board for the Coalition for Productivity Growth.

The political and environmental records of these state “partners” are very concerning. The UAE is a close ally with the Trump family; Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is also a Trump ally and shares, with Donald Trump, an adviser in Steve Bannon. Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration, Mother Jones reports, has “utterly savaged the Amazon rainforest, a crucial store of carbon and home to nearly 1 million indigenous people, opening it to cattle ranching and undermining decades of efforts to preserve it. A July 2021 Bloomberg investigation found that ‘Brazil’s government is engaged in an active campaign to open up the Amazon to privatization and development — first by turning a blind eye as public and protected lands are raided and cleared, and then by systematically pardoning the people responsible and granting them legal title to the stolen lands.’”

Mother Jones offers this critique: “Given the steamrolling of the Amazon and the pesticide free-for-all, Vilsack is essentially embracing the agriculture policies of what counts as a rogue state in climate- and broader environmental-policy terms. At a time when climate change can’t be ignored — with droughts, floods, and fires menacing our key farming regions — a Democratic agriculture secretary is ambling down the same pesticide-scented path trod by Trump.”

By contrast, the head of the EU’s Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, has emphasized that agricultural productivity growth can no longer be the only or primary concern: “We’ve created a system that pushes farmers to increase and go bigger all the time. But that system has pushed the Earth past its limits. We’ve got to stop counting success in terms of the number of ‘wagons of food’ we produce.” 

Many members of the public, and those in the advocacy communities, might have expected better from a Biden Secretary of Agriculture, particularly given the administration’s understanding of the threats of the climate emergency. Indeed, there was optimism at the early flurry of executive orders that signaled the new administration’s appreciation for the need for systemic-level review and climate action across federal agencies.

It appears now that Secretary Vilsack missed the memo; his endorsement of this industry-friendly Coalition for Productivity Growth signals serious inattention — or downright ignoring — of the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture on climate, health, environment, biodiversity, and natural resources. Beyond Pesticides maintains that the transition to organic regenerative agriculture, which counters environmental and other harms, is imperative and urgent.

When he nominated Tom Vilsack for a second turn as the nation’s agriculture secretary (and head of USDA), there was mixed reaction among advocates and the public. Some, such as the nonprofit Farmworker Justice, embraced the choice, largely because during his previous tenure in the Obama administration, Mr. Vilsack had engaged with the farmworker community in relatively unprecedented ways. Others were less thrilled; the nomination was criticized on multiple fronts. Beyond Pesticides wrote, in December 2020, “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.” 

As governor of Iowa in the early 2000s, he got cozy with the state’s industrial agriculture and biotech sectors. The Counter reported in a 2019 investigation that “employees alleged that Vilsack’s USDA repeatedly ran out the statute of limitations clock on discrimination complaints, while attempting to foreclose on farmers whose cases hadn’t yet been resolved. Employees also said that USDA manipulated Census data to obscure a decline in Black farming, which in turn allowed Vilsack to paint a rosy but inaccurate picture of his tenure.” During that tenure, he “allowed big agribusiness to carry out inspections themselves, rather than [be inspected by] federal government inspectors,” and allowed a significant increase in slaughter line speeds in poultry plants — raising the risks of processing worker injury.

Immediately prior to his current tenure, Secretary Vilsack worked as a lobbyist for the Dairy Export Council, during which time “he made clear his opposition to policies that . . . would break up corporate agriculture conglomerates.” He also, for all his talk early in the Obama era of concern about the plight of small farmers, went on to allow rapid consolidation in the agricultural sector, which often squeezes out small farmers. The Center for Food Safety wrote that he “promoted factory farms with funds intended to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions” by supporting methane digesters on site at CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), absent evidence of their efficacy. He was also on watch at USDA when he expedited the approval process for GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and when Bayer purchased GMO giant Monsanto. (He has been dubbed “Mr. Monsanto” by some critics.)

Politico writes that the kerfuffle over F2F represents a “food fight” over how to transform the global food system, and suggests that at risk may be not only billions of euros in annual agricultural trade, but also, progress on reining in climate change through cooperation around respective food systems. This is not “small potatoes” because agricultural enterprises are responsible, globally, for roughly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions — due in large part to the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and animal wastes. The outlet writes that in an interview with him, Secretary Vilsack “barely veiled his criticism of the EU’s farming philosophy.”

Secretary Vilsack’s enthusiasm for industry interests has been covered repeatedly. His rationale for his challenge to the EU’s plan comports with those interests, but is being cloaked in language about “market-based” approaches, “considering impacts and tradeoffs among multiple objectives,” and “linking” climate, environment, and resource goals to the production goals. For some in the environmental and health advocacy communities, it sounds a lot like the greenwashing in which industry engages. See the USDA web page describing the initiative.

How goals for climate and resources and health survive this initiative — never mind potentially experience any success — remains to be seen. All of which begs the question: what will President Biden do about this apparent deviation from his climate mandates for federal agencies? Advocates and the public would do well to let President Biden know that this initiative is not only wrong-headed and destructive, but also, violates the mandates he set out and promised to enforce. Contact President Biden here.

Source: https://www.motherjones.com/food/2021/09/vilsack-agriculture-pesticides-eu-farm-to-fork-brazil-rainforest-meat/

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

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