Opinion Wars: ‘Mr. Monsanto’ Vilsack’s nomination to head Agriculture

Caption test Let's talk about "Mr. Monsanto" Thomas Vilsack's controversial nomination to head the Department of Agriculture under President Joe Biden’s administration.
by Anush Arvind

Every once in a while, Anush and his alter ego, The Contrarian, get into a scuffle about the latest in environmental politics. Annoyingly, The Contrarian sometimes has a point worth writing down. Today, Anush’s alter ego has decided to publicly sit down with him and talk about Thomas Vilsack’s controversial nomination to head the Department of Agriculture under President Joe Biden’s administration. 

Anush: We love Biden up in here. Right? I think we can, the both of us, broadly agree that he’s doing good things for the country. I mean I love the infrastructure package, his handling of the pandemic, his – 

Contrarian: Oh yeah, we’ve got a Biden-inspired rave going on here. I mean why ever should we discuss his failure to address the immigration crisis on the southern border – 

A: Don’t.

C: – or the lack of effort he’s put into unifying this country – 

A: Don’t mention –

C: – or the fact that he appointed Vilsack Secretary of Agriculture! Ha!

A: (audible sigh)

C: Oh yeah. What do you have to say about having “Mr. Monsanto” head the department of agriculture? How’s that Biden rave going now?

A: You do know you’re insufferable, right?

C: It’s only because I’m right and you know it.

A: Fine, let’s talk about it then. So Biden appointed someone with historical ties to big corporate agriculture to his cabinet. What’s the big deal?

C: First of all, the ties aren’t “historical.” Literally until he was nominated by Biden this year, he was president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council, one of the biggest lobbying firms that cater to the interests of leaders in the dairy industry. He earned just under $1 million a year there. Secondly, he’s Mr. Monsanto! That’s the big deal.

A: Enlighten me: Why is he called “Mr. Monsanto”?

C: Because he was – and still might be – Monsanto’s biggest asset in the White House. When he headed the agriculture department under Obama, there was an overall suspicion that he was too cozy with Big Ag, especially Monsanto. He fast-tracked the approval of GMO cotton and soy seeds produced by Monsanto and resistant to dicamba, an extremely lethal pesticide, in 2015. He did this before the Environmental Protection Agency could even review them. 

This incentivized farmers to use dicamba – also produced by Monsanto – on their soy and cotton crops. The dicamba spread, however, to neighboring fields, killing thousands of acres of crops across the country. Arkansas and Missouri have since outright banned the sale of dicamba, and in 2020, a federal court blocked the sale of three major dicamba products (including Monsanto’s). 

A: So people started calling him Mr. Monsanto, right around then?

C: Oh he really earned that name when he allowed the merger of Monsanto with another agribusiness giant, Bayer AG, in the largest acquisition of 2016. 

A: All of that sounds quite bad.

C: That it does.

A: But what I’m hearing is that he approved seeds that, indirectly, lead to an irresponsible usage of dicamba – a product he had absolutely nothing to do with. Look at the facts you just told me. There is no reason to believe there’s a greater evil plot here. Monsanto and Vilsack miscalculated – and they paid the price for it. The destruction of the thousands of acres of crops was in no one’s interest! It is, at worst, simply incompetence; incompetence being nearly synonymous with Washington, D.C. And, at best, it was a series of events that no one could have predicted. People mess up all the time, and he messed up. 

The widespread use of dicamba, an extremely powerful fertiliser produced by Monsanto, damaged crops (as pictured) across the United States. COURTESY OF MODERN FARMER.

 

C: And what of the merger?

A: You know I’m a die-hard liberal. Mergers of giant corporations are a big no-no for me. I cannot bring myself to think the Montano acquisition was in any way a good thing – and there’s enough evidence to suggest that prices for farmers actually rose as a result of the merger. But there are some people – approximately half of the country – that are economically conservative. Republicans generally love mergers; they think they make the market more efficient. Vilsack, a lifelong Democrat, obviously thinks so too. Vilsack is Biden’s olive branch across the aisle.

C: Well, yes, I can see how, from Biden’s perspective, the Democrats need votes in rural America, which now votes heavily Republican. But he isn’t going to get those votes, not with Vilsack. Not with the memory of his previous administration of Agriculture. His actions led to the ruin of so much agricultural land and money. And whether or not he was directly responsible for it, people remember “Mr. Monsanto.” 

A: That remains to be seen, actually. All the protests so far have come from the left. Vilsack seems to have garnered a lot of support from a lot of non-corporate groups. The National Farmers Union said Vilsack has “the necessary qualifications and experience” to guide the USDA through turbulent times. He’s also received endorsements from Feeding America, the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation – the list goes on for some length. Everyone who knows what they’re talking about support Vilsack!

C: No amount of support can take away from his previous damaging record as Ag Sec. There’s the whole Monsanto controversy of course, but there’s also the fact that he failed to enact protections for slaughterhouse workers and oversaw the approval of high-speed slaughter. He even failed miserably to address discrimination against black farmers, who have now lost 90% of their land over the past century, despite promises to the contrary. And he failed repeatedly to stand up to Big Ag, most embarrassingly when he couldn’t even pass his own draft of rules in 2011 extending much needed protections to chicken farmers. His previous tenure as Ag Sec should be terrible enough to disqualify him from the post again, especially when a more obviously qualified candidate, Rep. Marcia Fudge, was rejected for the post.

A: …

C: What?

A: Everything you said is true. And maybe all of that should disqualify him from running Agriculture. But it doesn’t. Because as it stands, the department is in need of R&R following Trump’s turbulent presidency. Think about the meatpacking crises, the China sanctions and the irresponsible deregulation that typified the previous administration. Biden needs someone to bring the department back in order, and who better to do that than a department veteran.

C: He might take this opportunity to remake Ag in his own corporate image.

A: Or he might restore farmers’ faith in the federal government – all while expanding Biden’s base in rural America. 

C: Hmph.

The Contrarian

(Disapproves Mr. Monsanto)

Anush

(Supports Mr. Monsanto)

  • Was CEO of the US Dairy Export Council, one of the biggest lobbying firms that cater to the interests of leaders in the dairy industry.
  • Biden needs someone to bring the department back in order, and who better to do that than a department veteran.
  • As Secretary Agriculture under Obama, he fast-tracked the approval of GMO cotton and soy seeds produced by Monsanto and resistant to dicamba, an extremely lethal pesticide, in 2015.
  • Supported by The National Farmers Union, Feeding America, the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, etc.
  • He is seen as a compromise candidate, who will hopefully expand the Democrat’s base in rural America.

  • Has promised to do better addressing racial inequity in agriculture this time round.
  • His “Mr. Monsanto” is blown out of proportion. He may be friendly with Big Ag, but that is not necessarily a bad thing in an industry that needs to recover from the Trump era.

Let us know what you think about Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary in the comments below. Whose side are you on: Anush’s or The Contrarian’s?

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Jeff Austins
Jeff Austins
1 month ago

By far, Vislack is the wrong person to lead. The USDA needs a new vision and fundamental changes, corrupt Vislack is not going to bring either. Let’s not forget that under his leadership at the USDA farm subsidies grew to record amounts and these subsidies encouraged growers to overproduce (more needless waste) and drove down prices paid to farmers.

Grace Foreman
Grace Foreman
1 month ago

I’ve got to agree with the Contrarian here. I was already biased to begin with because I don’t think that lobbying specialists with the possibility of individual motives tying them to their choices should have government positions. I’m a grassroots kind of girl myself, and I don’t think that rich and powerful people can truly represent the working classes by means of which this Cabinet position (and all the rest of them) should. In my mind, politicians that are tied to any sort of sponsors, donations, or companies will certainly pertain to their desires first. Also, Monsanto’s history speaks for itself- actions speak louder than words.

Dilan Patel
Dilan Patel
1 month ago

Leave it to the U.S. government to appoint the worst person for the job! As of now, the world needs to change the farming paradigm to a more sustainable approach. Of course, that is not going to happen with a career politician like Vilsack. I agree with everything the contrarian says, plus, the number of endorsements Vilsack has equals a dirty money pull which points to more snakey political garbage. I have to say though I didn’t expect anything more out of Biden and the Dems. Sadly the men and women who feed our families will suffer the most.

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