A person walking in a field surrounded by spray

Back to the Future with Tom ”Mr. Monsanto” Vilsack – Part I

December 22, 2020 | Alexis Baden-Mayer

Organic Consumers Association

President-Elect Joe Biden has nominated Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary.

For anyone who is familiar with our Millions Against Monsanto campaign or who participated in March Against Monsanto during the Obama-Biden years, you know why this is bad news.

For everyone else, this is the first installment in our series of articles that will recount this history to explain why we opposed Vilsack’s nomination in 2009 and why we still do in 2021.

Tom Vilsack was “Mr. Monsanto” even before he started at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2009. As Iowa’s governor (1999–2007), he had been named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Today, he continues to serve agribusiness as the head of the US Dairy Export Council, which is deeply invested in perpetuating the system of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), the use of pesticide-drenched genetically modified feed, and the practice of keeping prices paid to farmers below the cost of production to drive the consolidation of ever-larger factory farms.

As USDA Secretary from 2009-2017, Vilsack approved more new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) than any Secretary before him or since. His GMOs include:

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets. A judge ruled that innevitable contamination would cause the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets. A judge ruled that innevitable contamination would cause the “potential elimination of farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, the first genetically modified perennial crop. By the end of the Obama administration, it had gone wild, costing American alfalfa growers and exporters millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn, which claimed a 4 percent yield advantage in field tests against conventional corn. The GMO corn was eclipsed by conventional corn grown after cover crops, which demonstrated an 11 percent advantage–during the 2012 drought.

Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant Xtend soy and cotton. Off-target drift of the volatile herbicide these crops are engineered to resist has destroyed millions of acres of non-resistant soy, as well as nurseries, vineyards, vegetables, trees, native plants and ornamentals, since Vilsack approved the new GMOs in 2015 and Obama-Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency cleared new versions of the weed killer in 2016. It’s been a nightmare for farmers and state pesticide regulators fielding complaints of crop destruction. Arkansas put a ban on using dicamba after May 25 and Illinois restricted dicamba use to June 30-July 15, but that hasn’t stopped the damage in those states or across the country.

Scotts Miracle-Gro Roundup Ready lawn grass. Vilsack told the company it didn’t need federal approval or permits to conduct field trials or sell the seed commercially, even though a different type of genetically engineered grass had already escaped from company test plots.

Syngenta’s Agrisure corn. Vilsack stood idly by as this seed that contained genetically engineered traits–that were illegal in China–was sold to U.S. farmers. The corn crop was rejected, costing farmers, including those who didn’t grow the new GMO, at least $1.51 billion. Seven years later, Syngenta (now owned by ChemChina) will soon be mailing settlement checks to impacted farmers.

Syngenta’s ethanol-only corn, containing an engineered enzyme that makes the corn unsuitable for processing and consumption. Vilsack’s approval was over the opposition of the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the North American Millers’ Association, the Pet Food Institute and the Snack Food Institute.

Dow (now Corteva)’s 2,4-D-tolerant Enlist corn, cotton and soy. A known endocrine disruptor and possible human carcinogen, 2,4-D is linked to cancer, thyroid disorders, decreased fertility and birth defects. Vilsack’s USDA projected that the new GMOs would mean the amount of 2,4-D sprayed would grow between 200 and 600 percent by 2020. This was slowed by the wait for Chinese approvals of imports, which were completed in 2019, but the agricultural use of 2,4-D has already seen a bump from 30 million pounds in 2005 to 44.4 million pounds in 2016.

J.R. Simplot Company’s Innate potatoes. Four years after Vilsack approved this RNA interference (RNAi) GMO, Caius Rommens, the former Monsanto scientist who invented it, exposed the dangers of his work, including the accumulation of at least two toxins that are absent in normal potatoes.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ Arctic Apple. This apple that is bright green when juiced, and doesn’t turn brown when it is bruised or starts to go bad, was the first USDA approved GMO created with RNA interference. Granted, it was FDA, not USDA, that should have investigated evidence that the double stranded RNA survives digestion and enters the bloodstream and tissues of the body, where it can influence the functioning of the eater’s cells. But, Vilsack should have examined the plant pest risks: The chemical compound that is shut off in order to prevent the apple from browning is the same that protects it from insects, injury and disease. 

Cloned animals. When Vilsack was asked in 2010 if cloned cows or their offspring had made it into the North American food supply, he claimed he didn’t know. Needless to say, this aroused alarm. Europe moved for an embargo on imports of cloned animals and their produce and offspring. As did the National Organic Standards Board, but Vilsack never issued regulations to make that official and he left the door open to the progeny of animals derived using cloning technology being allowed in USDA Organic. Since clones are most likely to be used as breeding stock, especially dairy bulls, it is very likely that the offspring of cloned animals are being used to produce organic milk and other food.

Synbio dairy substitutes. Vilsack allowed companies like Perfect Day to begin using genetically-altered yeast cultures to manufacture synthetic dairy substitutes―with no regulations to protect consumer health or the interests of family dairy farmers. 

Lab-made meat. Vilsack let companies like Memphis Meat begin engineering cell-cultured meat under his watch without invoking the USDA’s regulatory authority to inspect or label it. No surprise that a former USDA staffer of his ended up lobbying for the company.

And, for all that, we have Tom “Mr. Monsanto” Vilsack to thank!

If that’s not okay with you, call your U.S. Senators and ask them to Vote No on Vilsack!

Be sure to check back here for more installments of Back to the Future with Tom Vilsack where we’ll detail all of Mr. Monsanto’s USDA fails. Next up, Vilsack’s Dicamba Disaster.

Tell the Senate: Vote No on #MrMonsanto (a.k.a. Tom Vilsack) for Secretary of Agriculture!