Whither Agriculture?: Vilsack, USDA and Future Challenges

January 29th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Frederick Kirschenmann is a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He is listed as one of the “Sustainable Dozen” by Food Democracy Now, an online petition to bring leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement into the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Given the smooth Senate confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack on January 14 one would not have guessed that his appointment to the position of secretary of agriculture had been met with some mixed reviews across the country. Some of my friends and colleagues associated with the sustainable agriculture movement were deeply disappointed by the president’s choice. In their view, Vilsack was simply too enmeshed in the current, industrial agriculture paradigm to provide the kind of leadership that would be required to move us in a more sustainable direction. Meanwhile, a few in the industrial agriculture arena were concerned that he was not committed enough to maintaining the status quo. I initially had some mixed feelings of my own. Agriculture will be facing some incredible challenges in the decades ahead and I occasionally wondered if Vilsack possessed the knowledge and imagination to guide us through the difficult changes that are upon us.

During his confirmation hearings Vilsack made it clear that he shared some of President-elect Obama’s priority concerns, especially climate change, nutrition, sustainability, and energy independence. Of course, as always, the devil will be in the details.

Virtually all of the climatologists that have addressed climate change and its effects on agriculture have confirmed that there is no way to predict with any confidence exactly how climate change will play out in any particular region of the country since the potential effects are simply too complex to make such predictions. However, what they all seem to agree on is that we will see much more unstable climates – more floods and droughts and severe weather events.

Given the diet-related health problems emerging among children (especially obesity and diabetes) it is clear that we need to find ways to improve the diets of our children and Vilsack is certainly on track to suggest that one of the best ways we can initially address the problem is to review the USDA’s policies and procedures as they relate to school lunch programs. The good news is that many public school systems are already addressing that issue so he should get a lot of grassroots support.

The energy issue is going to be more difficult for him. Since we have created an economy that is absolutely dependent on fossil fuels – and our food and agriculture industry is perhaps more dependent on fossil fuels than any other segment of the economy – it is hard to imagine how we can become “energy independent” any time soon. There has been a great deal of rhetoric on the issue of alternative energy and Vilsack repeated some of it in his confirmation hearing. But the hard truth is that almost all alternative energy is still dependent on fossil fuels. Wind energy may seem to have “weaned us from Mid-east oil” given that wind blows freely across the plains of the Midwest. But in fact, it takes energy to mine the ore and process it into steel and manufacture the towers and turbines and erect them and maintain them – and all of that energy is fossil fuel energy – most of which is imported. So the resources of the USDA should not only be devoted to developing alternative energy but also to designing new systems that require far less energy.

Another issue that was not on Vilsack’s list is freshwater. We have been drawing down our freshwater resources to produce and process our food throughout the planet at an absolutely unsustainable rate. Seventy percent of our global freshwater resources on the planet are used for irrigation. By some estimates in our current industrial food system we consume approximately 2000 gallons of water to produce and process a single pound of boneless beef steak and 140 liters of water to put a single cup of coffee on our tables. While we need only about 4 liters of water per person to meet our daily liquid needs, we consume, on average, over 2000 liters of water in our current food system to produce and process our daily food requirements.

So we are facing some fundamental issues in our food system that must be addressed and that cannot be fixed with technological innovations alone. These are systemic problems that require systemic solutions.

I would urge Secretary Vilsack to consider two questions and one recommendation to begin moving us toward a more sustainable food and agriculture system.

First, let’s assume that ten years from now oil will be $300 a barrel, that we only have half the fresh water resources available that we have today for our food and agriculture system and that we have twice the severe weather events. What kind of agriculture should we be designing to put on the landscape that enables farmers to thrive, invites a new generation of farmers to enter farming and that restores the economic health of our rural communities?

Second, since we all know that healthy soil is the foundation of any sustainable food system, what could we do to launch a major global soil health restoration effort?

And since systems are complex and multi-faceted, I would urge Secretary Vilsack to insist on full life cycle analysis in assessing whether any innovation actually produces the economic, environmental or social benefits it purports to provide.

Personally I believe that Vilsack is up to the task. He demonstrated as governor of Iowa that he was smart, a good manager and a good listener. It is up to all of us to support him in this incredibly difficult task we have given him.

Tags: 2009 · AP Issues · Commentary · Frederick Kirschenmann · January 2009

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Todd Phillipe // Jan 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Nice piece, and thanks to Ames Progressive and to Fred for covering the Vilsack appointment. There’s certainly been no lack of commentary on the new Secy of Ag, and I trust he’s reading all the articles, editorials and blogs. I too have major reservations about Vilsack’s commitment to safe food, sustainable farming practices and to supporting small / family / beginning / organic farmers. I am disappointed in Obama’s choice. Fortunately there are many voices (such as Kirschenmann’s) and many organizations that are leading the charge for positive change in agriculture. Too bad USDA is stuck in a 1950′s paradigm with a focus on industrial agriculture, high cost nonrenewable inputs and (most recently) an overly sympathetic ear for genetic manipulation of crops and food. I say all this as an ABS graduate of Iowa State, Iowa farmland owner (in absentia) and retired USDA employee. Let’s all keep the pressure on the former governor and his 100,000 employees to do what’s in the best interests of eaters and the environment.

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