Articles by Dave Murphy
Dave Murphy is the founder and director of Food Democracy Now!, a sixth generation Iowan, and an advocate for sustainable agriculture.
Another day, another disaster...
In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his classic book The Jungle, awakening America's consciousness to the horrors of corruption in the U.S. meatpacking industry with the story of Chicago's stockyards. The Jungle so shook the American people's confidence in how their meat and food was processed, that President Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration to quell public outcry.
Fast-forward a hundred odd years later and all evidence points to the fact that we are living in an era of food crisis that rivals that of the turn of the last century. Regretfully, America's modern food system has become The Jungle 2.0.
Indeed, there have been prodigious grumblings from Washington, D.C., over food safety issues in the past months. Thanks to the current peanut butter fiasco from the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America, our nation is once again in the throes of a record food safety recall, signaling that we need a serious overhaul of our nation's food safety system and the industrial food model.
America's current food system has the potential to create an epidemic food safety crisis much larger than that even Sinclair or Teddy Roosevelt could imagine. For a variety of reasons, including the corrosive influence of agribusiness corporations and lack of government funds, staff, and training, we now live in a world where food safety in America is on the verge of facing a collapse similar to those of our recent financial, mortgage, and housing industries.
There have been whispers recently from Washington, D.C., that indicate that the wheels of change are grinding to a halt even before the Inauguration of our next President takes place.
The recent nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Ag was a disappointment to many in the sustainable ag and family farm community because of Vilsack's close relationship with agribusiness and his penchant for promoting biotech and corn-based ethanol. Despite some positive comments during his confirmation hearing regarding nutrition, local foods and climate change, many in the sustainable ag community remain skeptical, while some remain hopeful.
I've written previously, as have others, to place Tom's record in context; that he was the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 40 years and that during his governorship he had to contend with a Republican House and Senate.
This will not be the case when he heads the USDA with solid majorities in Congress, a call for "change in America" and support from the White House. There will be no one to blame for failing to put forward a progressive agenda for America's food and farm future.
On Wednesday, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began his confirmation hearing to become the 30th U.S. secretary of agriculture with the promise to be a forward-looking leader who would make the USDA a 21st century agency. While his nomination has been unpopular among some members of the sustainable-agriculture community, there is hope that under his guidance the USDA can grow into a very different agency than it has been during the past four decades, when it's been run by secretaries such as Earl Butz.
As the next head of the USDA, Vilsack will be charged with revamping a sprawling agency that has an annual budget of $89 billion and more than 92,000 employees, a task that he is uniquely qualified to do.
In Iowa, which my family has called home for six generations, Vilsack is known to be a smart, capable administrator who has been willing to listen to the concerns of family farmers and rural advocates. While attending a Practical Farmers of Iowa conference this past weekend, where many of the state's most progressive and sustainable farmers gathered, there was almost universal agreement that Vilsack is capable of much more at the national level than he was as the governor of a former red state, where almost any progressive policy he would have put forward would have been blocked by a Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate.
CAFOs and GMOs
That said, many are still upset over Vilsack's 1995 vote as a state senator to repeal local control (H.F. 519), which stripped local elected officials from having a say in where confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located. His promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has concerned members of the sustainable-ag community even more. They fear that his closeness with agribusiness companies will only prolong U.S. farm policies benefiting corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers.
Here in Iowa, while we have been disappointed with many of our political leaders, we are pragmatic and understand when it is important to work with them and when it's time to hold them accountable.