Where does President-elect Obama stand on food policy — with the interests of Big Food and its Congressional water-carriers, or with the budding sustainable-food/food-justice movement?
I guess the first substantial indicator will come when he names his secretary of agriculture. Until that time, we’ve got some data points to consider.
• On the scary side, check out this recent account of remarks by Collin Peterson (D-Big Ag), chair of the House Ag Committee.
Peterson, tireless champion of corn-based ethanol that he is, wants Congress to boost the required ethanol-to-gas blend in the national fuel supply from its current 10 percent to 15 percent, "to avert an ethanol surplus."
This is hardly surprising in and of itself. Hardcore ethanol boosters have long known that the real solutions to ethanol’s many problems lie not in the lab or the farm field, but rather the halls of Congress. (Interestingly, Peterson is bluntly skeptical of the viability of cellulosic ethanol; he’s not boosting corn-based ethanol as a bridge to a cellulosic future, but rather as the future. Oh dear.)
But get this: Peterson added that Obama "will be supportive of whatever we (Congress) come up with." Ouch. Really? Let’s hope his confidence in Obama’s fealty to Big Corn is misplaced. (Chillingly, Peterson’s name is being bandied about as a possible USDA pick.)
• Another data point, not to be misunderestimated — to use the argot of the outgoing regime — is Obama’s lucid recent summary of Michael Pollan’s big article on food policy and the next president. Obama’s statement shows he understands some key issues around food policy, public health, energy, and climate.
The Des Moines Register reports, though, that industrial farming interests immediately shrieked on reading Obama’s comments, forcing the campaign to issue a "clarification." Obama’s remarks on Pollan stand "in conflict with what he’s been saying about agriculture, no question about it," the president of the National Corn Growers Association groused.
• In terms of fund raising, Obama raised about $1.9 million from agribiz interests during the campaign — a robust take, but significantly less than his opponent’s $3.1 million haul.
• Then there’s his policy platform — discussed in a recent Victual Reality column — which contains many encouraging points.
It seems clear to me that Obama will face tremendous pressure to maintain some semblance of current farm/food policy. Ag policy folks whom I trust tell me that Obama will quite likely pick a conventional corn man to lead USDA.
Pressure in the other direction will come from below — from grassroots sustainable-ag/food-justice activists. The time to organize is now.