Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Secretary of Agriculture directs the USDA, setting governmental policy on food safety, labeling, farm subsidies, biofuels, genetically modified foods, school lunch programs, workers rights and other aspects of food and agriculture.
Last May, when I interviewed Barack Obama about food and agriculture policy, I asked him what he’d be looking for in a USDA chief.
“As president, I’d select a Secretary of Agriculture who shares my commitment to America’s farmers and ranchers and the importance of developing the rural economy, yet is not afraid to challenge entrenched special interests in Washington,” he said. “I’d implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community-supported farms.”
These words gave many foodies the audacity to hope that with the election of Obama– who feeds his family organic food, and who knows what community-supported agriculture even is– long-overdue change might actually come to the nation’s food system.
Foodie activists’ hopes for a reform Agriculture Secretary were dashed this week, though, when it was revealed that Obama plans to name former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as his choice.
“Now remember, this is a president who promised change, and [there’s] not much change so far,’’ agricultural economist Jim Wisemeyer mused at a Washington, D.C., speech to the Food and Agriculture Policy Summit. (The event was sponsored by Monsanto and the United Soybean Board. “That ups the odds that once we get to the USDA level, we could well see more of a reformer. Now, that’s going to get the production agriculture people nervous… ” ) Such fears proved unfounded.
A letter signed by all-star sustainable-food advocates Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry and Frances Lappé recently submitted to Obama’s transition team included a wish list of change-oriented ag secretary candidates from within the mainstream political establishment, including Gus Schumacher, former USDA undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services; Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs; Sarah Vogel, former North Dakota agriculture commissioner; organic farmer Fred Kirschenmann; Minnesota secretary of state Mark Ritchie; Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. (To read a copy of the letter, go to www.fooddemocracynow.org/.)
These names were are a lot more exciting than others that were being floated, including U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-Col.), a potato farmer; Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff (who worked against the labeling of milk from cows that receive supplemental growth hormones); Tom Buis, President of the National Farmers Union; Tom Buisand Charles Stenholm, a former Texas pol now a lobbyist for the horsemeat industry before the decision was made to pick Vilsack.
One name conspicuously absent from the list was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), an organic farmer well liked on both sides of the aisle.
If not Tester, then sustainability advocates hoped it would be someone of his caliber.
With Americans overfed on empty, unhealthy calories and industrial agriculture causing regular food-supply scares and environmental degradation while rural America shrivels, we need a Secretary of Agriculture who understands the connections between farming, health, the environment, local communities and the world.
The announcement that the choice would be Vilsack, yet another centrist who is widely viewed as a big-corn, pro-subsidy, factory-farm cheerleader marks a defeat for that cause. It’s a lost opportunity.