A tale of two Toms

Even blog-cruising, newspaper-munching, “Economist”-digesting politicos don’t know Edward T. Schafer. He’s the current Secretary of Agriculture — I guess that explains it.

But President-elect Obama has an unprecedented opportunity, as did JFK, to surround himself with a cabinet capable of palpable change. And although Rahm Emanuel might not admit it, the position of Secretary of Agriculture has as much positive potential as any other executive official. The Associated Press reports three frontrunners for the position: Tom Vilsack, Tom Buis and Charles Stenholm. My pick is Tom: Vilsack and Buis appear prepared to shift government subsidies, adjust ethanol production and create jobs in rural America to realign the Bush administration’s misguided agricultural policy.

First, the runt: Charles Stenholm is a pawn of the status quo and embodies the deficiencies of the Bush administration’s agricultural policies. A 13-term Democratic representative from Texas, he shepherded the noxious 2002 farm bill through Congress to America’s detriment. The bill maintained enormous subsidies for America’s richest grain farmers while neglecting the economic hardship of small family farms. It provides 35.4 percent of federal subsidies ($2.8 billion) to corn, the foundation of high fructose corn syrup (the ubiquitous sweetener) and America’s primary animal feed, but only 2 percent ($160 million) to all fruits and vegetables combined. This disparity underlies America’s obesity epidemic: The cheapest food is fatty and caloric, while nutritious greenery and citrus remain inaccessible to millions of low-income Americans, the very same Americans whose bellies grow and health-care costs climb with every 99-cent value meal. Stenholm: a no-hoper.

Tom Vilsack, for his part, became the 40th governor of Iowa in 1999 and was the second man, after Mike Gravel, to announce his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. His experience and policy focus lie in energy independence, not agricultural adjustment, although the two are intimately linked. Agribusinesses, the corporations so heavily subsidized under current policy, rely on petroleum-based chemical fertilizer to boost crop yield. Thus Vilsack must tackle the greatest irony of the American food system, namely that photosynthesis, the ultimate solar and sustainable activity, currently requires enormous input of fossil fuel to feed America. Without a recommitment to organic, biodiverse farming, especially on a large scale, agricultural inefficiency will cripple any sustainable energy program.

Biofuels are contentious — they encourage energy independence, yet, under current policy, are made from grain grown with large inputs of foreign fossil fuel. Biofuel production also increases global demand for staple grains and thus contributes to rising world food costs. These price increases have lead to dozens of food strikes worldwide this year, particularly in politically unstable regions in Africa and the Middle East. As American biofuel production contributes to social unrest in volatile countries, the secretary of agriculture must weigh foreign policy priorities along with those of rural America. Tom Vilsack is an ardent supporter of biofuels, which, on par, I consider a mistaken priority.

Tom Buis is president of the National Farmer’s Union, a non-governmental lobbyist organization that supports family growers. The only farmer of the three, he previously served for five years as a senior agriculture policy adviser to Tom Daschle, Democrat from South Dakota. Rural economies depend on profitable long-term family farming; Buis’ policies strike to the heart of rural American’s economic woes.

“With 25 percent of the 2007 budget cuts coming out of agriculture spending, farmers and ranchers are saying enough is enough,” Buis said in a report to Congress. “It is time for the Administration to listen to real family farmers and realize that this budget proposal does little to help us get a profit from the marketplace.”

Buis’ commitment to re-establishing small farm profitability shows his dedication to a sound, grounded, long-term economic retooling. Yet small farming by itself isn’t the answer: We must translate the responsible practices of small farmers to agribusiness. Every mouth, American and not, deserves to be fed a healthy meal, a creed to which Tom, I do believe, aspires.

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