I guess this whole "activism" thing sometimes works. To have Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's Sustainable Dozen, named deputy secretary of agriculture is, as Tom Philpott suggests, a huge win for progressives. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, but Merrigan, as its author and later its enforcer, has been without question battle-tested. In his post, Tom linked to Samuel Fromartz's perspective on Merrigan from back in November. But it's worth digging in to the comments as well. There you'll find none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener about whom I've written) giving Merrigan his hearty endorsement. Further down is evidence in the form of a WaPo profile from 2000 (now behind a firewall) that Merrigan didn't shy away from battles. I was particularly struck by her conflicts with the various agricultural advisory committees -- a bunch of guys who clearly lacked both social graces as well as a sense of humor: After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity. After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn't made a "significant effort" to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled "Attack of the Tomato Killers." The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as "Beltway Blindness." In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: "I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements."
"It's a dead end to try and eliminate subsidies, because then you get all of America's farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, unified against change. Right now the incentives are to produce as much as possible, whatever the costs to the environment and our health. But you can imagine another set of assumptions, so that they're getting incentives to sequester carbon. Or clean the water that leaves their farm, or for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they're growing." -- Michael Pollan, reflecting a growing consensus
Imagine Norman Bates, twisted hero of Hitchcock’s Psycho, stumbling into a funhouse of mirrors and finding Mother at the center, her image reflected on a thousand surfaces surrounding him. He might freak out, right? That’s a bit how I feel when I walk into Carrboro Beverage Co., a small and extremely well-stocked beer store in Carrboro, N.C. The walls and cooler displays form a veritable crazy-quilt of craft beers from around the world — but mostly from the United States, which has become the global leader in artisanal brewing. I usually have to make myself steer clear of the place …
I wish I could "friend" Michelle Obama -- in real life, not on MyFace or whatever that thing is called. Last week, she sent a verbal Valentine to community gardens. More recently, she snuck a bunch of reporters into the White House kitchen, where she sang the praises of local food. According to a New York Times report, the First Lady served up a discourse worthy of the Berkeley sustainable-food doyenne Alice Waters: When food is grown locally, [Obama] said, "oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you're dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot.""If it tastes like a real carrot, and it's really sweet, they're going to think that it's a piece of candy," she continued. "So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious." Now, some wags might protest that, as the Times reports, Wagyu beef appeared on the menu that night. Was it imported all the way from Japan? Fed on grass -- or industrial corn? Why isn't the White House sourcing beef from celebrated, pastured-based nearby farms like Polyface? All legit questions, but ... when can we come by and perform a perfection-check on your fridge and larder? I like Ms. Obama, not just because she can wax Waters-esque about carrots. I also admire her sharp critical edge -- the one she displayed during the campaign, when she made her famous speech about being proud of America for the first time in a while. She got pilloried by cable TV hosts and muzzled by campaign handlers, but she had a point: 30 years of stagnant wages, a Ponzi-like financial system reliant on a series of absurd bubbles, a hollowed-out education system, the buildout of a high-profit, low-nutrition, high-polluting food system, the willlful refusal to address vital issues like climate change... As Ms. Obama finds her sea legs aboard the good ship White House, I hope she continues to explore her inner locavore -- and season it with a dash of critical political/economic thought.
This year, Congress will reauthorize the Child Nutrition and WIC Act -- which either cleverly directs low-quality industrial food to our nation's most vulnerable population, or ensures the health of our most precious resource, depending on whom you ask. Like the Farm Bill, the Child Nutrition Act comes up for review every five years. It encompasses the School Breakfast and the National School Lunch Programs, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). If you ask me, it's geared pretty precisely to fit the needs of the processed food industry; "child nutrition" has little to do with it. That's why I was thrilled to see the recent NYT op-ed by Alice Waters and Katrina Heron called "No Lunch Left Behind." Surveying the wreckage of the school-lunch program -- declining childhood health metrics, hollowed-out school kitchens that have become centers for reheating pre-fab chicken nuggets, etc. -- Waters and Heron conclude that: How much would it cost to feed 30 million American schoolchildren a wholesome meal? It could be done for about $5 per child, or roughly $27 billion a year [vs. current spending of $9 billion] plus a one-time investment in real kitchens. "Yes, that sounds expensive," they continue. But does it really? The Treasury and Federal Reserve hand that much cash over to insolvent mega-banks like Citigroup before the first coffee break some days. And unlike propping up "zombie banks," a robust school-lunch program offers plenty of positive synergies, as the authors make clear: healthier children and future adults, stronger local and regional farming economies, etc. While Waters and others push to transform school lunches, some of our nation's largest corporations and trade groups aim to keep it just the way it is. From the American News Project, here's a great video documenting lobbying efforts from the likes of Pepsico and the National Pork Producers Council.
Last time a president had the occasion to name a deputy USDA secretary, I had a rhetorical cow, man. Back in 2005, President Bush chose Chuck Conner, a man who had previously worked as a flack for Archer Daniels Midland, for that position. Could Bush have made a more explicit bow to the gods of agribusiness? President Obama suddenly seems intent on blazing a new path for USDA. Sure, he picked a farm-state governor with ties to the ethanol and biotech industries as USDA chief. But that's almost reflexive in our political system. The key question became: who would he pick as the deputy -- the official who typically gets things done and sets the tone for the department? Would he pick a corn-fed flack, like Bush did? Another go-along to get-along type in the Vilsack mode? Or a real reformer? Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts. From what I can tell at first blush, she's a real reformer.
US Department of Agriculture chief Tom Vilsack may not deserve that recently awarded Grist green thumbs-up after all. Obamafoodorama (blissfully abbreviated as ObFo) has an amusing and edifying (and lengthy) disquisition on Tom Vilsack's much ballyhooed "People's Garden." When Vilsack took a jackhammer to a slab of concrete in front of USDA headquarters in honor of Lincoln's Birthday (the USDA was founded under Lincoln and referred to by him as "the People's Department"), he thought he was demonstrating the USDA's commitment to sustainable landscaping. But he did it without, it appears, much forethought. The planning process seems to have consisted of one step: "Dig a hole." There's no design for an actual garden to go in its place -- and it certainly was not intended, as many have presumed and now demanded, to be a food garden. The landscape plan that Vilsack brandished in a USDA photo was, according to USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service spokesman Terry Bish, a prop. When ObFo asked about it, Bish said "Oh, that's old. Those are the plans from when [former Ag] Secretary Schafer was planting a tree in the ornamental garden to honor a USDA employee who was killed in Iraq." In fact, the whole thing was a photo op that got out of hand. But the goal of the garden changed when it became apparent that there was a groundswell of public interest in a food garden at USDA headquarters. "Suddenly there was all this interest from the public about vegetables," Mr. Bish said. "It was a sleeper. Sometimes we do these things, and they get really big." He repeated: "There's actually no timeline for the garden. It was all about the Bicentennial. But now we have to come up with ways of maintaining it and to see how we can use it ..."
Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them." The same can be said of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's newfound commitment to "get Americans to eat more healthful foods while also boosting crop production to feed a growing world population." As he notes, "These two goals have often been at odds."
Recently I wrote about the dwindling faith the American people seem to have in science, seemingly choosing to either ignore or disregard the latest research on global warming. Why has science lost its place in the hearts and minds of America? Has the media been a culprit? Did the Bush administration dismiss one too many scientific reports? But now, a recent article leaves me wondering if science has not only taken a backseat to American thoughts, but a backseat to industry influence as well. In Thursday's New York Times, Andrew Pollack reported on how crop scientists throughout the country have been unable to perform adequate testing and research on biotech crops, because of the strong hand of biotechnology companies. Pollack was likely alerted to the story after a group of 26 corn insect scientists from 16 different states anonymously submitted a statement to the EPA on a docket regarding the evaluation of insect resistance risks with a brand of Pioneer Hi-Bred biotech corn. In their statement the scientists noted that they chose to remain anonymous because "virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research." Remaining anonymous allowed the scientists to fully express their real concern with biotech crop research controlled by the industry through technology and stewardship agreements, required to be signed for the purchase of genetically modified seeds. Such agreements are the same that farmers must sign before purchasing seeds, which prevent them from replanting seeds or thus risk legal action. The scientist coalition noted that such agreements "explicitly prohibit research" and "inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry." The effects were clearly stated -- "no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology." Yet the scientific research community has not always been this way. Before patents were granted for life forms, the Plant Variety Protection Act passed by Congress in 1970 allowed farmers to save and replant protected seeds and gave scientists the right to research protected varieties.