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Environment

Change You Can Eat: Obama's Pick for Secretary of Ag May Finally Shake Things Up

As someone who eats organic and knows what a CSA is, foodies have high hopes for Obama challenging Big Ag.

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 many other aspects of food and agriculture. As the U.S. Forest Service is part of the USDA, the secretary of agriculture oversees national forest issues as well.

Last May, when I interviewed presidential candidate Barack Obama about food and agriculture policy, I asked him what, as president, he'd be looking for in a USDA chief.

"As president, I would 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 replied. "I would 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.

The Obama transition team has yet to tap a nominee for secretary of agriculture, and it may be a while before one is named, according to Jim Wiesemeyer, an agricultural economist, in a Dec. 2 speech to the Food and Agriculture Policy Summit in Washington, D.C.

"My list [of contenders] keeps growing, which tells me they don't know," Wiesemeyer said. "…I think USDA will be in the lower third of the cabinet secretaries announced."

"Thus far he's picked some pretty good, intelligent, pragmatic people," Wiesemeyer told his audience of agribusiness bigwigs (the event was sponsored by Monsanto and the United Soybean Board). "Now when it gets to the lower third tier of picks, remember, this is a president who promised change, and [there's] not much change so far at the cabinet level. So that ups the odds…that once we get to the EPA level, the USDA level…we could well see a surprise, and more of a reformer. Now, that's going to get the production agriculture people nervous…"

The production agriculture people might be even more nervous to learn about a letter, signed by all-star sustainable-food advocates Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Frances Lappé and others, recently submitted to Obama's transition team. The letter includes a wish list of change-oriented ag secretary candidates from within the mainstream political establishment, including:

  • Gus Schumacher, former undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services at USDA.
  • Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Nebraska.
  •  Sarah Vogel, former commissioner of agriculture for the state of North Dakota.
  •  Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer and distinguished fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, Iowa. 
  • Mark Ritchie, Minnesota secretary of state.
  •  Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman, director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

(To read this letter, and sign if you wish, go to www.fooddemocracynow.org/).

From a sustainable-agriculture perspective, these names are a lot more exciting than those being floated by various media pundits.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, named "Governor of the Year" by the Biotechnology Industry Organization and widely viewed as a big-corn, pro-subsidy, factory-farm cheerleader, was declared a "near shoo-in" by The Washington Post.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.), a Hispanic potato farmer, is getting a lot of ink, as are Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff (who worked against the labeling of milk from cows that receive supplemental growth hormones), President of the National Farmers Union Tom Buis (of whom a former staffer wrote, "If you want someone to throw sustainable agriculture under the tractor, he's your guy."), and Charles Stenholm, a former Democratic state representative from Texas and now a lobbyist for the horsemeat industry and other agriculture interests.

The Hillreports there are only two serious contenders for the post: U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. Peterson told the Financial Times last year that organic consumers are "dumb" to pay the premium for organic food, and received more campaign contributions from agribusiness -- nearly $1 million -- in 2008 than any other House candidate.

Sandlin, a young (37), conservative Democrat, shows the most promise of the litany of supposedly short-listed candidates, if only because she has so little baggage. Nonetheless, she has a more GOP-style approach to forestry issues, viewing national forests more from a tree farm than an ecosystem perspective. 

One name that's conspicuously absent from this game is my own top choice for the post, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). An organic farmer and former president of the Montana state senate, Tester is pragmatic, hard-working, a good listener, and well liked on both sides of the aisle.

While his stated position on the matter is that "I have the best job in the world and am honored to continue serving the people of Montana," my hopes remain on life-support thanks to the fact that he wouldn't comment on whether he's been vetted for the position. Also, he said he's not working with the transition team on selecting the nominee.

It's tough to imagine that Tester, if asked by his president-elect, would decline the position. But if not Tester, then hopefully the new secretary will 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 progressive secretary of agriculture who understands the connections between farming, health, the environment, local communities, and the world. Let's hope Obama picks a secretary of agriculture who will help America lead -- in the right direction, for a change -- on farm and food policy.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column.
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