Score one for sustainable food

Obama taps a real reformer, Kathleen Merrigan, for deputy USDA secretary

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.

Stick that green thumb somewhere else

USDA's People's Garden may not be all it's cracked up to be

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 ..."

Cutting the fat

USDA sees a food problem, but not the solution

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."

Genetically modified science

How biotech companies control research on GMO crops

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.

Why is the FDA unwilling to study evidence of mercury in high-fructose corn syrup?

Paging Erin Brockovich! There’s mercury in our water soda pop! Courtesy Universal Pictures, Inc. High-fructose corn syrup doesn’t just deliver a jolt of sweetness to …

The swinging barn door

Bush's former ag deputy slinks back from whence he came: a cush agribiz post

A few years back, I thought I was on to a Really Big Story: President Bush had plucked a man named Chuck Conner from his perch as president of the Corn Refiners Association -- a front group for Archer Daniels Midland, and the force behind those putrid high-fructose corn syrup ads -- and made him his "special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance." Eventually, Conner became the USDA's deputy secretary -- widely seen as the agency's fixer, the guy who got things done. In the corn bubble in which I then existed -- some say I'm still there -- this seemed like a really big deal. A man who had essentially worked as a lobbyist for Archer Daniels Midland -- the company that singlehandely rigged up both the corn ethanol program and the high-fructose corn syrup market, two massive travesties -- was now advising the president on ag policy. And people ... yawned. Thinking back on it, of course they did. This was the Bush administration -- crony capitalism had been raised to the level of statecraft. These guys were handing billion-dollar no-bid contracts to the vice president's old company, to perform outsourcing functions in a war he himself had engineered. What was a bit of Oval Office bump-and-tickle with an industrial corn man? Well, for those of you who care, here's a newsflash: Conner waltzed out of Bush's USDA and into another top job at a big agribiz trade group: the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Now, the group's name makes it sound a bit down-home, like a bunch of guys in overalls banding together to run a grain elevator. Don't be fooled. The NCFC is made up mainly of "cooperatives" that have scaled up to corporate size; many of them work in concert with agribiz giants like ADM to squeeze small farmers and workers. One glaring example is the giant entity Dairy Farmers of America, an NCFC member that controls a third of the milk produced in the U.S. DFA has been accused of colluding with milk-processing giant Dean Foods to squeeze farmers on price.

Notable quotable

Michelle Obama hearts community gardens

"I'm a big believer in community gardens ... both because of their beauty and for providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across the nation and the world." -- Michelle Obama, speaking at USDA headquarters

USDA fudging the numbers

A former USDA worker claims that small farm numbers may be overstated

Are there more small farms or not? Everyone from Reuters to the NYT has documented what appears to be an increase in the number of small farms in the U.S. But blogging ag economist and former USDA Economic Research Service researcher, Michael Roberts disagrees. According to him (h/t Ezra Klein), the supposed increase in small farms represents the USDA potentially fudging the numbers: USDA has also been working harder and harder to find and count hiding $1000 potential farms. Most of these guys don't know they're farms and so they can be hard to find and difficult to entice to return their census forms. So non-response rates are growing, mostly for tiny farms that probably don't realize they're farms in the first place. Non-response? No problem. USDA just uses weights to account for the non-response which boosts the officially reported number of farms. The important revelation here is that the USDA uses statistical weighting to arrive at the numbers for these micro-farms since many of these people don't even self-identify as farmers -- and so their precision is entirely a question of their methodology, i.e. how they decide to model the presence/frequency of these small operations. Census weighting is, of course, both controversial and necessary. Counting everything by hand can have a larger margin for error than rigorous statistical modeling. Indeed, this "controversy" is right now at the heart of a monumental battle between Democrats and Republicans over the U.S. Census (just ask Sen. Judd Gregg). That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice. However, even if your overall approach is solid, if you then change your weighting techniques from year to year, comparing annual changes is all but impossible. And that appears to be exactly what the USDA is doing.

For a quick fix to school-lunch woes, pack an appealing salad and dip

On a recent morning, I heard a report on Morning Edition that jolted my attention from an extremely delicious cup of shade-grown fair-trade organic ultra-correct …