The Vilsack Attack?

hempWhat will Biden’s Agriculture Department Mean for Small Farmers and Hemp?

Progressives coast to coast breathed a heavy sigh of relief as Joe Biden took the oath of office, ending the turbulent and reactionary rule of Donald Trump over the past four years.

But hemp cultivation, like the rewriting and replacement of NAFTA, was one of the few areas that actually saw positive change in the Trump years—with bipartisan support. The 2018 Farm Bill that re-legalized the crop after generations of prohibition bore Trump’s signature.

And there are fears that Biden could mean a return to the Washington consensus of a corporate-friendly “free trade” status quo ante, shorn even of the limited populist measures of the Trump era.

For small farmers, including some hemp cultivators, Biden’s choice to lead the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) may provide a case in point.

Vilsack’s climate agenda
Tom Vilsack, Biden’s nominee for USDA, has been at the helm of that department before. He was two-term governor of Iowa, a key farming state, before serving as agriculture secretary throughout the Obama years.

If confirmed, he will head a department whose diverse responsibilities include not only helping the nation’s farms but overseeing the National Forests, the food stamp program, and regulation of food quality, nutrition and labeling.

Vilsack is emphasizing his pledge to accelerate USDA programs to combat climate change—in a way that will be good for the nation’s farmers. “Agriculture writ large is ready for this, much more than before,” said Vilsack in a Jan. 22 interview with Iowa’s Storm Lake Times.

“We can create a whole new suite of revenue streams to protect [farmers] from the vagaries of trade,” Vilsack stated, saying his USDA will launch pilot projects on carbon capture that could be formalized as full-scale programs in the 2023 farm bill. He broached making “carbon sequestration” through soil conservation the basis of a “cap-and-trade market,” allowing farmers to make money by keeping carbon locked in the soil.

Existing USDA programs established to protect soil, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, would be folded into a carbon-trading program that could be overseen by the Commodity Credit Corporation, a USDA entity dating to the New Deal era, designed to stabilize crop prices.

By Environmental Protection Agency figures, agriculture accounts for nearly 10% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Poor soil management can lead to emissions of both carbon and nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. Livestock, especially cattle, produce methane through their digestive process—actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, although there is considerably less of it in the atmosphere.

Studies indicate that the Paris climate accord's minimum goal of an increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius will be met within a mere five years at current rates. A 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that this would mean devastating consequences for the planet within a generation—worsening food shortages, wildfires, droughts, coastal flooding, and a global crisis with “no documented historic precedent.”

The United States is the world's second highest greenhouse gas emitter. It is also among the highest per capita emitters—well ahead of the top emitter in absolute terms, China.

‘Revolving Door’
But some advocates are concerned about Vilsack’s “revolving door” relationship with agribusiness, noting, first of all, his recent role as a dairy industry lobbyist.

In February 2017, after leaving the Obama administration, Vilsack joined the industry lobby group, Dairy Management Inc. He served as its executive vice president, as well as president of its subsidiary body, the US Dairy Export Council. Records uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2019 revealed he’d been paid a whopping $999,421 the previous year, his first full year on the job.

A related story in the Journal Sentinel noted wryly: “As the number of dairy farms nationwide has plummeted by nearly 20,000 over the past decade, there’s one corner of the industry doing just fine: The top executives at Dairy Management Inc., who are paid from farmers’ milk checks.”

The Illinois-based nonprofit, charged with promoting milk, cheese and other products, spends nearly $160 million a year collected through payments from dairy farmers. And these payments are federally-mandated under the Dairy Promotion Program, a “commodity checkoff” program overseen by the USDA and established by the Dairy Production Stabilization Act of 1983.

In 2017, a year that saw 503 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin and 1,600 nationwide, IRS records reviewed by the Journal Sentinel showed 10 executives at the organization were paid more than $8 million—an average of more than $800,000 each.

‘Mr Monsanto’
Critics have also pointed to Vilsack’s compliance with the interests of agbiz and associated industries in his time as USDA secretary—especially biotechnology. This legacy actually begins with his time as Iowa governor.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in 2001 named Vilsack as “Governor of the Year” for his “support of the industry’s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.” It cited his creation of a “Governors’ Biotechnology Partnership,” bringing private companies to the table in helping to craft policy.

The Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association notes that during his time as USDA chief, Vilsack approved more new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) than any secretary before him or since—winning him the epithet “Mr Monsanto.”

The long list of GMO seeds approved by Vilsack’s USDA include several of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready varieties—specially designed to withstand the Roundup (glyphosate) herbicide, also produced by Monsanto.

Today, agro-chemical companies are also the largest seed companies. And while conventional hybrid breeding has long been used to produce high-yield varieties, recombinant DNA technology is used to create genetically modified seeds with traits such as pesticide resistance.

Some of Vilsack’s approvals were challenged in the courts by groups such as the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Seed Alliance. In September 2009, a federal judge held up USDA approval of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, finding that contamination could 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.” He ordered the USDA to carry out an environmental impact study before the approval could go ahead.

A 2015 study by USDA scientists found that this was indeed happening with Roundup Ready alfalfa. It was escaping from farms in California, Idaho and Washington to go feral, and potentially contaminating fields of non-GMO alfalfa.

This has potentially far-reaching implications Explains Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association: “Contamination of non-GMO seeds by crops genetically engineered to resist roundup can affect neighboring farms. The genetic trait of resistance can be passed from plant to plant thru soil microbiology, leading to pesticide-resistance weeds.”

Exports of US-grown GMO corn to China were also barred by Chinese authorities in 2013, because the variety, known as Agrisure Viptera, had not been approved by Beijing’s Agriculture Ministry. This cost US farmers over $1.5 billion, and become a matter of litigation. Finally, the company the produced the strain, Syngenta, agreed to a $900 settlement.

Comments Baden-Mayer: “It’s very unkind to the farmers to say ‘we want you to start buying this crop now but we aren’t sure you’re gonna be able to export it this season.’ It’s shameful of the part of the federal government to let corporations that have such control over the market to start selling these traits before farmers have export markets for them. In this case, it had a devastating impact on farmers. They had to crash the market just for one season of sales, and Vilsack was fine with that.”

Corporate consolidation
Recent years have seen a consolidation of the GMO seed industry, which is now dominated by just four companies.

Ironically, Swiss-based Syngenta was itself taken over in 2016 by Beijing’s state-owned China National Chemical Corporation (CNCC, also known as ChemChina). That same year, Monsanto was bought out by the Swiss Bayer and folded into Bayer Crop Science. In 2018, Dow Chemical and DuPont merged their seed and agrochemical subsidiaries into a new giant known as Corteva. The fourth giant of the cartel is German-owned BASF.

“GMOs haven’t delivered on promise to simply farming,” Baden-Mayer says. “They promised agriculture that would mean less chemicals, less labor, less money—but it has done the exact opposite.”

She sees a vicious cycle at work. After Roundup-resistant weeds started emerging, the herbicide Dicamba, produced by BASF, was marketed to kill them (under the name Engenia. This gave Monsanto the opportunity to develop Dicamba-resistant soy seeds, dubbed Xtend, in a partnership with BASF. This marketing strategy was the subject of anti-trust litigation brought in the US courts in 2019. And each time the cycle goes round there are more ecological effects.

“Dicamba is drift-prone,” Baden-Mayer says. “This is something Vilsack knew when he approved Dicamba-resistant seeds. It is damaging what are called ‘off-target” crops’—a terrible euphemism. We are seeing a huge new experiment in the brave new world of GMO-based industrial agriculture. And in the history of agriculture, it’s the blink of an eye.”

Did Vilsack suppress science?
The dangers of an environment laden with pesticides were brought home by an August 2018 verdict against Monsanto in a case brought by a cancer sufferer in California. A San Francisco jury unanimously found that Monsanto was responsible for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma through his on-the-job exposure to Roundup. Jurors found that Monsanto had “acted with malice or oppression” when it sold glyphosate to Johnson’s employer, the Benicia Unified School District, without informing of its potential health risks. Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to a school grounds-keeper $289 million in damages to a school grounds-keeper Johnson.

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), calling on the Senate to reconsider Vilsack’s confirmation, accuses him of a “disturbing suppression of USDA science.”

PEER says USDA scientists have come forward to the group with numerous examples of Vilsack issuing “directives not to publish data on certain topics of particular sensitivity to industry” and “orders to rewrite scientific articles already accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal to remove sections that could provoke industry objections.” The statement also accused Vilsack of “inordinate, sometimes indefinite, delays in approving submission for publication of scientific papers that may be controversial,” “restrictions on topics that USDA scientists may address in conference presentations” and even “targeting USDA scientists who industry identified as troublesome for harassment.”

“Tom Vilsack’s record on scientific integrity at USDA was appalling,” stated PEER executive director Tim Whitehouse, charging that Vilsack’s appointment is at odds with the Biden pledge to respect “science and truth.” He added: “Government research documenting what is really going in American agriculture does not need a corporate filter.”

The GMO labeling controversy
Vilsack was also seen as giving a gift to the biotech industry in the fight over labeling of food with GMOs. Congress passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard in 2016, requiring the USDA to establish such a labeling standard.

But, in a pro-industry measure permitted by the law, the USDA regulations issued in December 2018 (and to take effect in January 2022) allow one of three methods for labeling food products—plain text, a “BE” symbol (for bio-engineered), or “electronic or digital disclosure methods.” This last option was especially considered a free ride for the industry, as it takes a conscious effort by the consumer to decipher, and (intentionally or not) discriminates against the poor, elderly and others not likely to carry a cellular device to the grocery store.

Sen. Bernie Sanders was among those who called the law a “toothless” and confusing national standard.

Vilsack went to bat aggressively for this gift to the biotech industry, telling the New York Times in June 2014: “The way to go, long-term, is to embrace a 21st-century answer to this problem… an extended bar code or some mechanism [through which] consumers who are interested in all the information about a product could obtain it fairly easily, either through their smartphone or through a scanner that would be available in grocery stores.”

Also as permitted by the law, the USDA regs require no labeling of “highly refined“ products derived from GMO crops.

‘Self-regulation’ of the poultry industry
In 2014, Vilsack’s USDA updated regulations on the poultry inspection system for the first time in 50 years—in a way the critics charged basically allowed the industry to self-regulate. And this at a time when foodborne illnesses and antibiotic-resistant infections were becoming increasingly common and more severe.

Under the new rules, the number of USDA inspectors was dropped from four to one inspector on the “evisceration lines,” where the internal organs are removed from chickens and turkeys.

The department said the new inspection rules would be more effective in fighting pathogen outbreaks, “placing more responsibility and trust on companies to protect the quality of their chicken and turkey.”

"[W]e are confident that this rule, with the additional sampling and testing, will result in safer food," Vilsack said, noting that the USDA would still be reviewing daily records on company testing for bacterial contamination.

Consumer advocates, of course, protested that fewer USDA inspectors at the actual plants gave industry greater leeway to cut corners.

The imperative for closer regulation of the industry was dramatically demonstrated this Jan. 28, when a leak of liquid nitrogen at a poultry processing plant in Georgia killed six people. Twelve more workers were hospitalized following the incident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, a hub of the industry in the country’s leading poultry-producing state. Nitrogen, used in refrigeration systems, can be deadly when inhaled, as it displaces oxygen in the lungs, causing asphyxiation. It cannot be detected by smell in the air. Fourteen workers died from asphyxiation linked to nitrogen in US industrial accidents between 2012 and 2020.

Inaction on anti-trust
Vilsack is also accused of failing to instate anti-trust measures for agribusiness that were mandated by federal law. “Not acting on corporate consolidation one of his biggest failures,” says Amanda Starbuck, senior policy analyst with DC-based environmental group Food & Water Watch.

Vilsack’s USDA held listening sessions on the question in different parts of country, “but nothing came of it,” Starbuck tells Project CBD.

Following these "public workshops," as they were formally known, the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) released new “Fair Farmer Practices” regulations in December 2016—in the very final weeks of the Obama administration. There was an immediate outcry from unhappy agbiz lobbies; the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) went so far as to say the new rule was “an apparent attack on rural America for its role in helping elect Donald Trump as president.” Vilsack called the claim “absolutely absurd.”

But the fact that the rules had been issued in the last weeks of the administration allowed the incoming Trump admin to annul them speedily under “midnight rule” provisions.

In fact, Trump promptly did away with GIPSA entirely, folding it into USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Says Starbucks: “They had eight years to issue these rules that were mandated by the 2008 farm bill. They totally dropped the ball on that. We were getting lip service to anti-trust issues, but not a lot of follow through on action.”

Starbucks sees this question as also relevant to Vilsack’s subsequent role as a dairy lobbyist.

“The dairy industry has been in crisis for years now. Farmers cant even make costs—which is great for the export industry, they’ve boomed in recent years. This is due to the abandonment of supply-management policies dating to the New Deal era to help stabilize markets in favor of farmers. Now, without that kind of price support, there’s nothing stopping overproduction. The price of milk went down, exports went up—but that hasn’t been good for farmers. Thousands of family-scale farms have been lost over the past 15 years.”

Starbucks says there were nearly 10,000 fewer dairies of any size in the United States in 2017 compared to 2012—a nearly 15% decrease.

Famously, in 2018 the New England dairy marketing coop Agri-Mark sent out contact information for suicide prevention agencies along with their checks to farmers.

'Modern-day serfdom'
The new deregulationist policies have lubricated a “switch to mega-scale factory-farm dairies with thousands of cows,” Starbucks says. “As small farms shutter, a lot less money stays local, and this has negative effect on everyone—the grocery store, the feed and seed stores. Dairy processing is also moving to larger consolidated operations, with farmers shipping their milk further to be processed. So again, less money stays locally.”

Speaking of Vilsack, she adds: “Someone who has been lobbying for the last four years on behalf of powerful dairy corporations is not the right person to be serving American farmers. His interests are not aligned with those of farmers on the ground.”

Despite the fact that lobbies such as Dairy Management Inc are funded by farmers through the federally mandated checkoff program, “there are a lot fears that the money is not being used in the best interest of small-scale farmers,” Starbucks says.

Some states, especially prairie states such as North Dakota, have anti-corporate farming laws that bar large direct agribusiness land holdings. “But a factory farm can be run by an individual,” Starbucks says. For instance, 96% of all chicken Americans eat was raised under contract—a system that dates to the ‘60s and ‘70s, but has boomed in recent years.

“A lot of farmers today raise birds that they don’t own. The corporation drops off chicks, provides feed and antibiotics, and the farmers get paid on weight per bird. That farm is still technically owned by an individual. Mountaire, Tyson and Perdue all do this kind of contract farming. It’s been compared to modern-day serfdom.”

Starbucks also stresses that Vilsack was Iowa governor when the state underwent a dramatic period of factory-farm expansion. A 2020 Food & Water Watch report on the question calls Iowa a “tragic case study in the consequences of a state opening its doors to factory farms. The average number of hogs on Iowa factory farms grew tenfold between 1982 and 2007. However, the total number of hog farms plummeted by more than 80 percent, and the state lost more than 40 percent of all farm jobs. Moreover, the total real value of Iowa’s hog sales declined, even though farmers were selling more hogs. The factory farm model is bad for Iowa’s economy, its farmers and the environment.”

The Free-Trade agenda
This deregulation dogma was seen again in Vilsack’s outspoken support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal. In October 2015 he had an opinion piece in papers such as Virginia’s Richmond Times-Dispatch plugging the TPP as allowing American farmers to access “half-a-billion potential shoppers” in the other member countries.

He called “for Congress to do the right thing for America’s farmers and send the deal to the president’s desk.”

Farmers were meanwhile holding angry protests against the TPP from Ottawa to Tokyo, fearing that the removal of protective tariffs under the pact would leave them vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global market, undermining them economically while providing a windfall to international brokers.

Obama signed the TPP in February 2016, hoping to win after-the-fact approval from Congress, which still had to send him implementing legislation. But by year’s end, he conceded to Congressional opposition and abandoned the deal—partially because Trump was by then exploiting it as a campaign issues.

The TPP was especially opposed by farmers who feared that it threatened traditional practices of seed-saving and “over-the-fence” sharing by agricultural communities by imposing rigid “intellectual property” (IP) protections for corporate seed producers and biotech firms.

According to a 2015 analysis by the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy:

The IP chapter requires all 12 TPP countries to join a number of global intellectual property treaties. One of those treaties is the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants 1991 (UPOV 91). That agreement updated the 1978 treaty in several important ways that emphasize the rights of seed companies over farmers’ rights... UPOV91 requires IP protection to be provided for all plant varieties; it requires protection for 20 to 25 years; and it stops farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds, a common practice of farmers in many countries around the world.

These measures were especially opposed in peasant communities that have guarded native seed varieties over the generations, and are vulnerable to being priced off the market by large farms using the technological package of GMO seeds and agro-chemicals. Farm groups in Mexico, considered the birthplace of corn, launched a campaign called “Sin Maíz, No Hay País” (Without corn, there is no country) that advocates for a ban on GMO corn. They have seen some victories in the Mexican courts, with rulings that have restricted the introduction of GMO seeds—although they were mostly reversed on appeal.

Upon taking office, Trump signed an order officially removing the US from the TPP process. This play to populism was met with relief by campaigners against the TPP, however appalled they may have been by the jingoist “America First” rhetoric accompanying it.

The remaining 11 signatory countries went on to reboot the deal the following year as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), or TPP-11—sparking protests by farmers, labor, students and indigenous activists in Chile, Peru, New Zealand and Thailand.

One of President Biden’s first efforts has been to rejoin international agreements that Trump withdrew the country from, and he has already initiated the process of re-entering the Paris climate agreement and World Health Organization. But while these moves won applause from progressives, any initiative to sign up with the CPTPP will meet strong opposition. Biden has in fact already broached it, but such a move would meet resistance from progressive activists as well as kneejerk globophobes of the Trumpian right.

Nonetheless, the threat of similar policies is likely to persist. Advocacy groups such as FarmProgress see the roots of the 1980s Farm Crisis that destroyed so many lives in the nascent globalization and deregulation dogma of the Reagan era—specifically, over-reliance on export markets just as the lifting of oversight on rail and trucking sent shipping costs soaring and New Deal-era price supports for agriculture were being dropped. 

And it was during the 1980s Farm Crisis that radical-right ideology began to take hold in parts of rural America. Re-forging a better deal for the nation’s rural and farming communities will be critical to the political defeat of Trumpism.

Biofuel booster
Vilsack’s record is on other points contested. He was a foremost voice in the Obama administration for biofuels—that is, fuels derived from crops such as corn or hemp rather than fossil hydrocarbons. Biofuels were aggressively pushed at the time as a measure against global warming, and Vilsack pushed for mandating their use in the American auto fleet.

His enthusiasm for biofuels dates to his time as governor of Iowa, which the country’s biggest producer both of corn and corn-derived ethanol. Not surprisingly, Growth Energy, the leading biofuel trade association, has issued a statement in strong support of Vilsack’s re-appointment to the USDA. So has the Iowa Biodiesel Board.

However, it’s not clear that on balance biofuels put any less carbon into the atmosphere than gasoline. The burning of biofuels does release carbon; they are considered “carbon neutral” by the US Energy Department on the notion that the carbon released is offset by that absorbed as the corn, hemp or other biomass is cultivated. Yet this has been questioned by critics, who argue that emissions from processing and fertilizer production should be factored in, and point out that ethanol burns less efficiently than gasoline. Concerns have also been raised about biofuel-driven demand driving up grain prices, and the diversion of land from the production of food crops—contributing to hunger and food insecurity.

On the other hand, the USDA also oversees the “food stamp” program—officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—and here, it has to be said, that Vilsack was its staunch defender.

Speaking before a meeting of the DC-based anti-hunger group Food Research & Action Center in March 2015, Vilsack said the program was being unfairly targeted by Republican lawmakers, dismissing claims that it was fraught with fraud and abuse. “Why is it that [lawmakers] are picking on the SNAP program? Because it works,” Vilsack said. “If these people were really serious about reducing SNAP and helping folks why wouldn't they consider raising the minimum wages?”

It also has to be noted that Vilsack gets high marks from producers of organic crops and foods for his promotion of their sector as agriculture secretary.

“There’s been significant expansion and interest in organics. Both the number of producers expanding and the sales expanding are an indication that this is a fast-growing aspect of agriculture,” Vilsack told Reuters in an April 2015 interview.

The report noted that according to USDA figures, there were then 19,474 certified organic producers in the United States and 27,814 around the world. The number of US-certified organic operations had been boosted by more than 5 percent over the past 12 months.

And finally, he was running the USDA when the 2014 Farm Bill allowed the first federally legal hemp crops, on a limited experimental basis. Some hemp producers are now supporting his re-appointment, recalling his embrace of the new crop at that time. Jonathan Miller, the general counsel to the US Hemp Roundtable, said in a statement upon his reappointment: “The USDA under Vilsack recognized that ‘market research’ under the 2014 Farm Bill included product sales…and facilitate[ed] the initial growth of the program, setting the table for the 2018 Farm Bill.”

Climate contradiction
Some see a paradox in Vilsack’s current promotion of climate programs. The agricultural model he has promoted through his cooperative stance toward the biotech-chemical complex inherently facilitates monocropping—economies of scale in which vast areas are planted with a single crop. We especially now see this with corn, which is used for animal feed and a source of the high-fructose syrup that is rapidly displacing sugar in junk and snack foods, as well as for production of biofuels. This kind of monocropping, coupled with over-reliance on petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation, is depleting soils of nutrients.

A December 2020 study in the publication Earth’s Future, journal of the American Geophysical Union, was ominously entitled: “The Hidden Costs of Land Degradation in US Maize Agriculture.”

It found that one third of current annual US use of nitrogen fertilizer in corn cultivation “is used to compensate for the long-term loss of soil fertility through erosion and organic matter loss. This leads to over a half billion dollars per year in extra fertilizer supply costs to US farmers.” The authors (including one from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service) called for measures to “reduce both the input costs and environmental impacts of agriculture through the restoration matter in agricultural soils.”

Another study, published in Science journal in April 2020 and prepared by scholars with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, had this sobering title: “Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought.”

The Earth Institute said in a press release: “A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role.”

“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” author Park Williams, bioclimatologist at Columbia University, said in the news release. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now. We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

Examining rings from many thousands of trees in old-growth forests across the Southwest and Rocky Mountain states as well as California, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stood out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale. (The one in the 1200s was likely a cause of the sudden decline of the indigenous Anasazi civilization, the so-called cliff-dwellers, in the Southwest.)

“Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones,” Earth Institute said. “The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all—but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty.”

The report’s abstract states grimly: “Global warming has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory... This appears to be just the beginning of a more extreme trend toward megadrought as global warming continues.”

The problem is, of course global in scope, by definition. A Special Report on Climate Change was released by the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August 2019, focusing links between greenhouse gas emissions and desertification, land degradation and food security. The report warned that the “rise in global temperatures, linked to increasing pressures on fertile soil,” risks “jeopardizing food security for the planet.” According to the report, about a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area is subject to human-induced degradation, such as soil erosion and desertification. The effects of global warming have led to “shifts of climate zones in many world regions,” exacerbating degradation, and leading to extreme weather conditions such as floods and droughts. The reports warned: “The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases.”

But the implications are obviously grave for those vast areas of the American West where agribusiness empires and sprawling cities have been built on some of the continent’s most arid lands.

Critique of carbon trading
Vilsacks’s favored climate strategy of carbon trading has also won skepticism and controversy from many environmentalists.

Several states are already trading carbon credits through regional compacts such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, covering the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. But Obama was hoping to instate the program at the federal level through a bill called the American Clean Energy & Security Act, which failed to pass. In November 2009, the New York Times reported on an embarrassing episode in which the Obama administration attempted to restrain two Environmental Protection Agency attorneys who went public with their criticisms of the carbon-trading strategy.

The lawyers, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, a married couple based in San Francisco, issued a YouTube video, titled “The Huge Mistake,” and accompanying opinion piece in the Washington Post, “ Democrats' climate bill failure.” After the op-ed, the EPA threatened disciplinary action if they did not make changes to the video. The agency said that they could mention their EPA affiliation only once, and must remove language specifying Zabel’s expertise and their years of employment with the agency, They were also instructed to remove an image of the agency’s San Francisco office. Rather than make the changes, the couple removed the video. But by that time it had been copied, and remains on other YouTube channels.

Their critique centered around the concept of “offsets” in the proposal law—carbon credits for those who (supposedly) clean up beyond what is legally required. Williams and Zabel wrote:

Suppose, for example, that a landowner is paid not to cut his forest so that it can continue capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Purchasing this offset allows owners of a coal-fired power plant to burn extra coal, above the cap.

But if the landowner wasn’t planning to cut his forest, he just received a bonus for doing what he would have done anyway. Even if he was planning to cut his forest and doesn't, demand for wood isn't reduced. A different forest will be cut. Either way, there is no net reduction in production of greenhouse gases. The result of this carbon “offset” is not a decrease but an increase—coal burning above the cap at the power plant.

In their video, Williams and Zabel claimed that the carbon-trading program already in place in the European Union had resulted in “higher energy prices for consumers,” “harmful price volatility,” “billions in windfall profits for utilities,” and (for all that) “few greenhouse gas reductions.”

Their claims were backed up by a harshly critical BBC study of the European Union carbon-trading program, released in June 2007, two years after the program was launched. The BBC study found: “The EU's carbon trading scheme has increased electricity bills, given a windfall to power companies and failed to cut greenhouse gases...”

As an alternative, Williams and Zabel posed carbon fees to make fossil fuels more expensive than “green energy”—geothermal, solar and wind.

Some voices in the environmental movement were even more skeptical. In 2009, amid the Wall Street crash and economic freeze, Friends of the Earth warned of the financialization of carbon in a report cutely dubbed “Subprime Carbon?”

As policymakers debate Wall Street reform, there is little attention being paid to whether new regulations will be adequate to govern carbon trading and the carbon derivatives markets, which many experts believe could become larger than credit derivatives markets.

Most proposed climate bills rely on cap-and-trade systems to achieve greenhouse gas reductions... But these bills do not seek to regulate carbon trading as a massive new derivatives market, which is, in fact, what it is… [E]xisting financial regulations...are inadequate to govern carbon trading, creating a potentially huge regulatory gap… [L]essons from the current financial crisis apply to carbon markets. In particular, it raises concerns about “subprime carbon,” risky carbon credits based on uncompleted offset projects (projects designed to sequester or reduce greenhouse gases).

Subprime carbon credits may ultimately fail to reduce greenhouse gases and, like subprime mortgages, could collapse in value, yet they are already being securitized and resold in secondary markets.

Charles Komanoff of the New York-based Carbon Tax Center, a group that advocates for the kind of solution proposed by Williams and Zabel, is not completely dismissive of Vilsack’s proposed program either. “A federal carbon cap-and-trade program isn’t in my opinion an inherently evil or corrupt means to pay for soil conservation,” he tells Project CBD. “Soil conservation programs aren’t sketchy and easily game-able scams like tropical tree-planting or paying putative factories in China to not emit climate-damaging refrigerants. They’re verifiable and tangible.”

Nevertheless, he adds: “The best way to pay for soil carbon sequestration is with general revenues and/or USDA funding pots; after all, sequestering carbon is good not just for climate but for soil. Failing that, if the funding source has to be priced carbon emissions, a carbon tax is preferable to cap-and-trade.”

Black farmers wary
With the United States now amid a long-overdue reckoning with questions of racial justice, one particularly ugly episode from Vilsack’s last tenure as agriculture secretary clearly gives cause for concern.

While the department’s treatment of Black farmers generally under Vilsack’s leadership has come under criticism, it was one incident in 2010 that came to crystalize the question: his removal of USDA official Shirley Sherrod after she was the target of a dishonest hit piece by far-right website Breitbart.

“It would be a slap in the face to all Black people for this administration to appoint him,” Corey Lea of the Cowtown Foundation, an organization that advocates for Black farmers, wrote in a letter last December urging Biden not to pick Vilsack.

Shirley Sherrod is something of a civil rights icon in her native Georgia. A formative experience in her youth set her on her life’s journey in social advocacy—in 1965, her father was shot and killed by a white man in a dispute over a cow. She would recall in a 2012 profile in the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “I made the commitment on the night of my father's death, at the age of 17, that I would not leave the South, that I would stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. And I’ve been true to that commitment all of these 45 years.”

That very year, she became involved in the local civil rights movement, and was one of the first Black students to integrate the Baker County high school in southwest Georgia. While still in high school, she co-founded the Southwest Georgia Project, to fight segregation and advocate for Black farmers. It began as a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but broke from its parent organization after the SNCC adopted a Black separatist position under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael. Sherrod and her project held to the SNCC’s original ethic of cooperation across racial lines.

Years later, Sherrod and her husband lost a farm, which they had helped run as a community land trust, to bankruptcy—finding themselves in the same position as many of those she’d been advocating for as an activist. In 1983, the property was seized by the USDA for defaulting on loans. Sherrod subsequently became a plaintiff in the Pigford class-action lawsuit, in which hundreds of Black farmers accused the USDA of discrimination, eventually winning a $1 billion settlement.

In 2009 Sherrod was hired by USDA as Georgia director of rural development—the first African American to hold that position. But just 11 months later she was forced to resign after being accused of “reverse racism.”

The critical incident concerned a speech Sherrod gave on March 27, 2010 before the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, in Douglas, Ga. A two-minute video clip of the speech was posted by right-wing political operative Andrew Breitbart on his website under the title “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism.” Breitbart wrote that “you will see video evidence of racism coming from a federal employee and NAACP award recipient.”

In the supposedly offending verbiage, Sherrod spoke of her work at the USDA: “I was struggling with the fact that so many Black people had lost their farm lands and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”

But the clip had been misleadingly edited. The NAACP quickly released the full footage of Sherrod’s 45-minute speech, revealing that the context for the quote was actually the opposite of what Breitbart had portrayed. Speaking of her early commitment to social justice, she said:

When I made that commitment, I was making that commitment to Black people—and to Black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He’ll put things in your path so that—that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know...

So I took him [the white farmer in question] to a white lawyer that we had... I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.

That’s when it was revealed to me that, y’all, it’s about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white...and Black...

God helped me to see that its not just about Black people, it’s about poor people. And I’ve come a long way, I knew that I couldn’t live with hate... I’ve come to realize that we have to work together... It’s sad that we don’t have a room of whites and Blacks here tonight. ‘Cause we have to overcome the divisions that we have... White people, Black people, Hispanic people, we all have to do our part to make our communities a safe place, a healthy place, a good environment.

In other words, she was relating how she had evolved from a narrow focus on the welfare of Black folk to a more universal vision of social justice.

Yet, disgracefully, the subterfuge paid off for Breitbart .

Within mere hours of his release of the video clip, Vilsack asked Sherrod to resign, acting in consultation with the White House.

When the context for Sherrod’s remarks was made clear, the administration offered to return her to her post. Vilsack expressed contrition. He told reporters: “This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell and I could have and should have done a better job.”

Sherrod declined the offer to return to her job. In 2011, she sued Breitbart and an associate for defamation. Breitbart died unexpectedly in 2012, and Sherrod settled with his estate in 2015.

Sherrod became director of the Southwest Georgia Project, the organization she co-founded long ago. In 2014, the told a reporter: “I don’t see a time when I would be working for the government again.”

In December 2020, after Biden announced Vilsack as his choice for USDA, Sherrod was interviewed by MSNBC. She expressed no bitterness, and even had favorable things to say about Vilsack: “We certainly need someone who knows the programs and layout of the agency. Vilsack has been there.”

But, referring to his record on Black farmers, she added: “He didn’t do all that he should’ve done the first time around. I feel that we should give him the opportunity to get it right this time. There shouldn’t be any excuse whatsoever... He knows what he has to do. And I do think he has something to prove to us... We had lots of land, and a lot of it was lost because of that discrimination at USDA. I think Vilsack and others really need to come up with special programs to assist Black farmers... I’m not exactly saying reparations, but something’s got to be done because of what has been done to us. We need to be able to get some of that land back. We need to be able to access loans and other programs through the agency and be treated fairly.”

Speaking more generally about the incoming administration, she said: “Biden would not be president-elect if not for Black people, so I think it’s time for them to show us that they hear us, and they want to do better by us.”

She did say that Vilsack had personally apologized to her over her removal in 2010.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act
Biden made a campaign promise to “address longstanding inequities in agriculture,” and Vilsack has expressed his support for the Justice for Black Farmers Act.

Introduced last year by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) the Justice for Black Farmers Act is aimed at “correcting historic discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal farm assistance and lending that has caused Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland and robbed Black farmers and their families of hundreds of billions of dollars of inter-generational wealth.”

The press release announcing the bill states: “In 1920 there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the United States. Today, due to this history of discrimination, it is estimated that there are less than 50,000 remaining Black farmers. The Justice for Black Farmers Act will enact policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers and restore the land base that has been lost, and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the United States.”

Placing hopes on the deputy
Biden, of course, faced criticism from advocacy groups for Black farmers over his choice of Vilsack. They, along with the NAACP, had been calling for the nomination of Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, to the post. Fudge, a member of the Black Congressional Caucus, had long served on the House Agriculture Committee, and was chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee, which has oversight over USDA operations. She would have been the first Black woman to serve as agriculture secretary, although not the first African American—that was Mike Espy, who ran the USDA under President Bill Clinton.

While Fudge was bypassed for USDA, she will be joining the cabinet—Biden chose her to lead the Department of Housing & Urban Development.

And advocates for Black farmers were heartened by Biden’s choice of Jewel H. Bronaugh, the Virginia state agriculture commissioner, to fill the deputy secretary post in the Agriculture Department. If confirmed, Bronaugh will be the first Black woman to serve as the USDA deputy secretary.

Also winning support is the choice of Heather Dawn Thompson, a Lakota attorney and longtime advocate of Native American sovereignty, as director of the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations. Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, told Indian Country Today from her home in Rapid City, SD: “I’m absolutely humbled and so honored to be selected. My passion is in rural tribal economic development and tribal agriculture, so being given the opportunity to serve Indian Country in this capacity is more than I ever could have imagined.”

Progress in final hemp regs
In a promising development for hemp growers, the change of administration in Washington was immediately preceded by the USDA’s issuance of final regulations for the crop’s cultivation.

Hemp and hemp-derived CBD were officially legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, but the Agriculture Department failed to bring its regulations into conformity with the new federal law for months. Interim regs were issued by the USDA in October 2019, opening a public comment period. This was officially to last 60 days.

But it was only this Jan. 15 that the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced release of the “final rule for the domestic production of hemp.” The rule’s publication in the Federal Register four days later made its instatement official.

This is especially good news for Native American farmers on the country’s Indian reservations, who were barred from growing hemp under state regulation due to their unique sovereign status, and had to wait on issuance of federal regs.

Welcome news for all hemp growers is that the “negligence threshold” for THC content in tested samples has been raised from 0.5 to 1.0 percent. While the legal limit for THC in hemp remains 0.3%, farmers now have greater allowance for error.

The press release on the final rule stated: “AMS believes that raising the negligence threshold...will increase flexibility to farmers as they learn more about how to grow compliant hemp and as the availability of stable hemp genetics improves.”

Additionally, the window between testing and harvesting has been extended from 15 to 30 days.

This was a victory for farmers and advocates who participated in the public comment process. The press release explicitly acknowledged this input: “Several comments suggested that a 0.5 percent negligence threshold threatens the survival of farmers in an emerging industry. Comments suggested that the low threshold is a barrier to entry for new farmers or farmers with no experience growing hemp, who risk high initial capital investments to establish operations. Comments argued that the low threshold favors larger farms...and that the low negligence threshold in the IFR [interim final rule] would unnecessarily criminalize farmers working with a legal agricultural commodity. Increasing this threshold to 1.0 percent benefits producers, including small and new farmers, that intended to grow hemp but whose crops tested ‘hot’ even though they made reasonable efforts to grow hemp.”

The final regs still restrict participation in the industry by those who were busted for cannabis cultivation in the past—which some find an onerous and ironic restraint. State and tribal hemp cultivation plans “must prohibit any person convicted of a felony related to a controlled substance under State or Federal law from...producing hemp for 10-years following the date of conviction.”

Leeway for hemp growers
Garrett Bain is president of EcoGen BioSciences in Grand Junction, Colo., a major source of the CBD isolate and distillate found in products available in retail outlets nationwide. In addition to its own 600 acres under cultivation, both greenhouse and outdoor, EcoGen contracts other growers who use company-supplied genetics, including some in Oregon and California.

Speaking to Project CBD, he is optimistic about the new hemp regulations. “Farming is a challenging business and farmers have really struggled to maintain compliance since the Farm Bill,” he tells Project CBD. “It’s nerve wracking for farmers facing the deadline of getting approval for harvest and having to get it done within the window. I think these rules really help with that.”

Bain discusses the particular challenge for hemp farmers who grow for the market in CBD and other cannabinoids, yet need to remain within permissible limits for one particular cannainoid—THC.

“Cannabinoids increase as the flower grows, and farmers are trying to get the highest CBD or CBG concentration. But at the same time, THC is increasing as well. Now we have a mechanism to commercialize that crop instead of having to potentially destroy it. The 1% threshold allows farmers a little more leeway.”

Bain emphasizes that this does not impact the finished product—isolate and distillate still need to be compliant with 0.3% limit. Most isolate has non-detectable levels of THC. Bain says that EcoGen’s full-spectrum distillate is always 0.2% THC or below.

But this opens another dilemma—because once retail products have been produced from CBD or other cannabinoids, they are under the oversight of the Food & Drug Administration. And the FDA, despite pressure from Congress, has yet to issue regulations for such products.

Says Bain: “We need guidance from FDA on how this is gong to be regulated—is it a food is it an additive? A lot of potential retailers are waiting for clarity to they can be compliant. Without their regulatory oversight there’s a lot of hesitancy especially about ingestible products. There are tens of thousands of doors of retail that are not participating in the hemp-derived CBD market—from grocery stores to pharmacies to big-box retail to e-commerce.”

He recognizes that some in the industry are “being bad actors and making false claims, and that doesn’t help our cause. Guidance is going to be what helps us move this industry forward.”

Biden has chosen Janet Woodcock, longtime director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation & Research, as commissioner of the agency—on an interim basis, for the moment. She is meeting with some opposition over her perceived failures of diligence in approving new prescription opioids. In any case, her hands are likely to be full with the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic for some time, which does not bode well for immediate action on cannabinoid regulation.

This story first ran Feb. 14 on Project CBD



Who's new

  • Baba Israel
  • Karr Young
  • John Veit
  • YosephLeib
  • Peter Gorman