Will Obama lead food and ag policy in new directions? He raised hope late in the campaign season, when he indicated he had read -- and understood -- Michael Pollan's "Farmer in Chief" essay. Since then, things have turned more dour. Obama made a boldly conventional pick for USDA chief -- a corn-belt ex-governor with ties to the GMO and biofuel industries. And now the chief adviser to this campaign on agricultural issues, Marshall Matz, has come out with a Chicago Tribune op-ed advocating a business-as-usual approach to ag policy. Matz co-wrote the piece with Democratic Party eminence grise (and farm-state politician) George McGovern.
Vermont's expansion of the food stamp program is an important story, one that demonstrates an increasing shift in our society's relationship to its food. Vermont's policy change on food stamps is likely to be mirrored by other states, and this represents both a fundamental shift in the reality of American need and also, I think, the final stake in the heart of the industrial food system. From the Times Argus:
Obama's nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as USDA chief is turning into a strange saga. First a crew of Big Organic execs join forces with a few activists to launch an enigmatic website to "support Vilsack" -- even though he's a shoo-in for confirmation. Now comes this, from the Daily News "Mouth of the Potomac" blog: A well-placed source says one option under consideration in filling the now vacant commerce secretary's slot is to tap ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for the job. Vilsack already has been named to serve as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary, and easily could move into the commerce position. The source tells The Mouth that Vilsack would be "a perfect choice" for Obama. Huh? I don't understand how it would be "easy" to move a nominee from one agency to another; seems like it would be politically messy. "He's the ideal USDA pick ... no, I mean, he's the ideal commerce pick!" But the transition team has already vetted Vilsack; maybe that's what the reporter meant by "easy." If the switch did happen, we'd be back to square one viz., the USDA: with the Obama team circulating a rather dismal short list, while activists push a more progressive choice. Update [2009-1-7 13:25:46 by Tom Philpott]:According to "sources close to" Vilsack, the ex-governor of Iowa won't be moved from USDA to commerce, Des Moines television station KCCI reported Wednesday. Vilsack is in Washington, D.C., "interviewing candidates for future [USDA] staff positions."
A group of NGO chiefs, activists, and Big Organic executives have launched a website and petition to support Tom Vilsack, president-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead USDA. Participants in the site, known as supportvilsack.com, include Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation; Iowa sustainable-food activist Denise O'Brien (who recently guest-posted on Gristmill); Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the U.S. Humane Society; Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic-yogurt giant Stonyfield Farm; Steve Demos, founder of soy-food giant White Wave (now owned by industrial-dairy behemoth Dean Foods); and several others. Institutionally, the Organic Trade Association -- whose members range from tiny producers of hemp products to global agribiz giant Bunge -- signed on. The effort strikes me as bizarre. Why band together to support someone who's a shoo-in to be confirmed? Vilsack is no firebrand reformer; his nomination will generate little controversy in the Senate. Moreover, I understand the argument -- made on Gristmill by O'Brien and by John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs -- that Vilsack is a relatively innocuous pick. After all, Obama's short list of USDA candidates included some real doozies, like agribusiness lobbyist Charles Stenholm. But Vilsack isn't likely to lead U.S. food/agriculture policy in new, more sustainable and socially just directions -- at least not without a real push from below. As I've written before (and many others have pointed out), he has been a fervent booster of the genetically modified seed and biofuel industries -- both of which proffer what I think are dead-end "solutions" to environmental problems and offer little to any but the largest-scale and most commodity-oriented farmers. I agree with the thesis that the sustainable-food movement should "work with" Vilsack, in the sense of pushing him to chart new directions in food/ag policy. But the "support Vilsack" movement (if it can be called that) seems less like a push than an uncritical embrace. Why, again?
There's an idea out there that reforming U.S. food policy simply can not be a priority for the Obama administration. We're enmeshed in two wars (three, if you count what our dear Israeli friends are up to in the Gaza Strip), the economy is crumbling, and climate change is accelerating. Under these conditions, how can Obama possibly busy himself with something as trivial as food? The president-elect himself seems to buy into this line of reasoning. By nominating a corn-belt pol with a history of playing footsie with agribiz as his USDA chief, Obama signaled that status quo, not reform, will mark his food agenda, at least early in his presidency. I think the food-reform-can-wait logic is wrong on several counts. As I'll argue later this week in Victual Reality, investing in a new food system could make for an excellent piece of a stimulus package. And on practical grounds, food-system reform is urgent. Anyone who doubts that should read the powerful, concise op-ed in today's New York Times by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. The sustainable food movement's most revered elders make the case with characteristic bluntness:
With the arrival of 2009, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes nearly a billion people a day go hungry worldwide. While India supplies Switzerland with 80 percent of its wheat, 350 million Indians are food-insecure. Rice prices have nearly tripled since early 2007 because, according to the International Rice Research Institute, rice-growing land is being lost to industrialization, urbanization, and shifts to grain crops for animal feed.
Did you buy “organic” food at the supermarket in 2006 — say, one of those clam-shell boxes of spinach? If so, there’s a strong chance you got hoodwinked. Get this, from the Sacramento Bee: For years, a California organic-input company was passing off synthetic fertilizer as organic and selling it widely to the state’s organic farms (including nationally distributed giants like Earthbound Farms). The offending company, California Liquid Fertilizer, owns about a 33 percent market share among the state’s organic farmers, the Bee reports. Using an open-records request, the newspaper found that state regulators uncovered the mess in June 2004, …
Edible Mediatakes an occasional look at interesting or deplorable food journalism. —– In a recent essay in The Nation, the critic William Deresiewicz made a pungent observation about the U.S. cultural scene: An iron law of American life decrees that the provinces of thought be limited in the collective consciousness to a single representative. Like a poor man’s Noah, we take one of each. One physicist: Stephen Hawking. One literary theorist: Harold Bloom. One radical social critic: Noam Chomsky. Before her death, we had one intellectual, Susan Sontag, and one only. (Now we’ve dispensed with the category altogether.) We are …
Ten Thousand Villages, the wonderful chain of Mennonite-rooted fair trade stores, offers two cookbooks perfect for people wanting to eat better, healthier, more sustainable food — much lower on the food web, with little or no meat, in season — while saving money. The first is the More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, a nice, basic first cookbook and a sustainable improvement on Betty Crocker. I would give this to any young person starting out in the world. With over 800,000 copies in print, the More-with-Less Cookbook has become the favorite cookbook of many families. Full of recipes from hundreds …
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