The free exchange of ideas is so essential to a healthy democracy, it was particularly disturbing to learn that Mark D. Keating was terminated as an Agricultural Marketing Specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP) for expressing personal opinions in communications with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
In an interview, Mr. Keating said the official reasons given for his termination were a "complete fabrication." He added, "I was the guy who knew too much."
Mr. Keating brought 20 years of experience in various aspects of organic farming to his government service. He was once an organic farmer himself and played a key role in the development of the USDA's organic standards and the establishment of the sustainable agriculture program at the University of Kentucky. "Abandoning traditional processes has brought new problems," he said.
Mr. Keating is convinced that it was the "political hierarchy" at the USDA rather than knowledgeable civil servants who were responsible for his termination. When asked whether powerful corporate interests had sought his dismissal, he said he had no evidence to support such a claim. He did say that giant agribusiness believes it has provided the "most abundant and cheapest food supply in the world" and the criticism leveled at it by sustainable farming advocates has led to "hurt feelings" in the industry.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals, is urging the NOP to reverse its decision. PEER contends that Mr. Keating did not contradict official policy, but was aiding an advisory panel in formulating recommendations for official policy.
PEER argues that his termination:
• Violates Obama administration policies encouraging "free and open inquiry" by scientists and other technical specialists; and
• Is at odds with policies adopted by other agencies, such as the Department of Interior, promoting the "free exchange of ideas" while formulating policy.
Mr. Keating's job description called for "wide latitude to exercise independent judgment" to "influence, motivate, and persuade the very diverse constituent population of the NOP." Since he was hired just last April, Mr. Keating was still a probationary employee with limited rights to appeal his dismissal.
If, as Mr. Keating maintains, the official reasons given for his dismissal were fabricated, then why was he fired? He says the truth lies in the answer to, "Who in the political leadership would object to my work?"
Undue Corporate Influence at USDA?
Last September, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published the results of a survey of USDA scientists and inspectors responsible for food safety. "Hundreds of scientists and inspectors responsible for food safety have personally experienced political interference in their work, and that's bad for public health," said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS's Scientific Integrity Program at the time. "Both the administration and Congress need to act."
More than 1,700 respondents took part in the survey, which was conducted for UCS by the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics. Most of the respondents had worked at their agency for more than ten years.
Disappointing Appointments at USDA
Back in 2008, Ronnie Cummins, executive director of Organic Consumers Association (OCA), told Democracy Now! about his opposition to the appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture:
"Vilsack has been an ardent promoter, not only of genetically engineered foods and crops, but also of the extremely controversial biopharmaceutical crops, which involves [inaudible] pharmaceutical drugs or industrial chemicals into food crops. Even, you know, quite a few people in the biotech industry are alarmed by these biopharmaceuticals, since you could get dangerous drugs throughout the food supply."
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, "Unfortunately, Mr. Obama on Wednesday chose Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa who has longstanding ties to agribusiness interests, as agriculture secretary - his weakest selection so far."
During the presidential campaign many sustainability advocates were encouraged by this statement from then candidate Obama, ""We'll tell ConAgra that it's not the Department of Agribusiness. It's the Department of Agriculture. We're going to put the people's interests ahead of the special interests."