Searching for the hope in Obama’s USDA pick
Is it too early to peel my Obama sticker off my car? I am more than disappointed by the President-elect’s nomination of Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture. But after some reflection, this dark cloud may have one ray of light coming through.
During his remarks at the press conference announcing the choice of Vilsack, Obama mentioned biotechnology. He said that promoting biotech was part of Tom Vilsacks’s vision to “strengthen our farmers” and build the “agricultural economy of the future.”
This was an explicit message to agribusiness saying that they can count on an Obama USDA to continue their agenda.
For those of us who care about sustainable agriculture, and for anyone who cares about integrity in government, this is bad news.
The biotech industry take-over of U.S. agriculture policy began in 1986. That was when the Reagan White House hosted Monsanto executives and began years of behind-the-scenes negotiations. Then, before any products were even on the market, the terms of the deal were announced. Even though this was a radical new technology and it would release artificial living organisms into the environment and our food supply, and even though federal agency scientists warned of potential health and safety risks, there would be no new laws and no government testing or monitoring. Instead, the industry would be trusted to report any problems they might find with their products.
This voluntary system is essentially what we still have today. As a result, our food is now widely contaminated with genetically modified organisms, and our farmers are using ever more herbicides and fossil fuels. And this technology locks them into dependency on corporations for all their inputs as well as massive public subsidies (agriculture’s annual bailout) to produce commodity crops.
The only change mentioned for Obama’s biotech policy is talk of labels for GMOs. That would be too little too late. Many developed countries have labels. But the rampant GMO contamination of food and seeds continues — really, contamination is just the control of commerce by other means.
And labels have not stopped this industry’s predatory practices, such as enforcing their patents against farmers whose crops are contaminated. Labels have not stopped the industry from manipulating international trade rules. The State Departments of the last several administrations promoted biotech and even forced them on other countries, most cynically, through food aid. Clinton will do the same.
I was a lawyer for the USDA during the Carter Administration. So I have some sense of the enormous impact the agencies of this department can have. It’s not just about chemically dependent farming and unwholesome food.
The USDA also controls millions of acres of public land where the timber and mining interests have been plundering the commonwealth, where recreational users have been destroying wilderness, and where native nations have been barred from the use of their ancestral lands. There are also USDA officials in every major U.S. embassy in the world, doing the bidding of agribusiness. And, because of its negligence, which is the kindest thing I can say about the USDA, bee colonies are collapsing, and frogs in our Atrazine-laden streams are confused about their gender.
Abraham Lincoln seems to be a popular theme with pundits during this presidential transition. Lincoln established the USDA. He called it “the people’s department.” And yet, over a century later, the politicization and privatization of public governance and the deregulation of essential industries have completely changed the executive branch. Government seems to have abandoned its fundamental duty to stand between the needs of its public citizens and the rapacious greed of its private corporations.
So, allow me a moment of dread. Beyond my dashed hopes for change, I fear that this nomination, with its explicit endorsement of the greed-ridden, corrupt, private biotechnology industry, is a sign that deep down, the public interest role of government is beyond repair. I thought we progressives would be welcome in the halls of an Obama government. Apparently, that’s not the case. But given the disreputable state of government these days, participation in regulatory politics may not be what we want anyway.
Denise O’Brien, a long time organic farmer and sustainable agriculture leader in Iowa who was narrowly defeated for secretary of agriculture under Vilsack, weighed in this week on the nomination. She says that while she understands our reservations, she has found that Vilsack is someone we can work with. She says we must continue to push for change. I have worked for the USDA and against the USDA and wish both efforts well. But my dashed sense of hope has opened my eyes.
Those of us who worked at the grassroots to elect Obama have been building a strong political movement. In my decades of social activism, I have yet to see social change thrive under the blessing of the powers that be anyway. Certainly, the local food and organic farming movement has been an enormous success, despite the best efforts of the USDA to weaken it.
So this disappointment may be just the reminder we need that our vision for change is the only one we can count on. We must do everything we can to protect the right and means to feed ourselves. Let the USDA eat biotech.