A year and a half ago, I complained that President Obama’s food and ag policy was “giving me whiplash,” because the administration seemed to keep zigzagging between progressive change and the agrichemical status quo.  

Since then, a definite pattern has emerged: The administration puts real policy power behind the status quo — see, for example, the recent deregulation of controversial genetically modified crops — and deploys what the political scientists call “soft power” (usually through Michelle Obama) to hector people to eat a little better and chide corporations to clean up their junk food a bit.

Two events last week offered a nice snapshot of what might be called Obama’s dual policy on ag.

Wendell BerryThe great Wendell Berry.Photo: Lou Gold1) In Washington on Wednesday, President Obama honored Wendell Berry with the National Humanities Medal. “The author of more than 40 books, Mr. Berry has spent his career exploring our relationship with the land and community,” Obama declared, before ceremoniously draping the medal around Berry’s neck.

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Berry, 76, is probably industrial agriculture’s fiercest critic. He is certainly its longest-running. His seminal book The Unsettling of America came out in 1977 — long before other prominent critics like Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, or Vandana Shiva published their own famous critiques. In an interview after the ceremony, Berry told his local paper, the Louisville Courrier-Journal, that “the president whispered to him during the ceremony that he admired his poetry.” (In addition to his nonfiction, Berry also writes poetry and novels.) Berry added that he had the chance to thank Michelle Obama for planting her famous organic garden on the White House lawn.

2) Two days later down in Tampa, Fla., USDA chief Tom Vilsack addressed the Commodity Classic, the annual confab thrown by the big corn and soy growers groups and funded by the agribusiness corporations that supply their inputs and buy and process their produce. The trade show’s exhibitors list reads like a roster of the globe’s dominant agribusiness players: corn-processing giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill; seed/agrichemical titans Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, and Dupont; and synthetic/mined fertilizers behemoths Mosaic and CF Industries. (My favorite exhibitor on the list: a group calling itself CornSugar.com, a project of the Corn Refiners Association that exists to disseminate the “facts about corn sugar.” It would seem the Corn Refiners’ site SweetSurprise.com, which focuses on the “facts about high-fructose corn syrup,” isn’t doing the job all on its own.)

So what did Vilsack tell the assembled great and good of the Big Ag universe? Mainly, he flattered them. From what I can tell from reading the USDA’s press release on the speech as well as media accounts, Vilsack focused on two things that have occupied USDA secretaries at least since the early-’70s reign of that legendary agribiz champion Earl Butz: promoting the ideal of cheapness as the true and only way to measure our food system; and helping farmers dispose of the mountains of corn and soy they produce on millions of acres of prime U.S. farmland.

“Our families spend less at the grocery store compared to consumers in much of the rest of the world,” Vilsack boasted, presumably to the delight of the large-scale farmers and agribiz PR folks in the audience. But cheap food means producing mountains of corn and soy — and in order to do that in a way that doesn’t drive farmers out of business, you need to find uses for it. Now as in the 1970s, the government’s two preferred methods for helping farmers burn through all that corn and soy are: 1) foisting it onto foreign markets; and 2) burning it in automobile engines in the form of ethanol. Vilsack focused his speech on those two points.

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Vilsack regaled the crowd with stories of how large-scale farmers would “lead the United States’ economic recovery by shattering agricultural trade records,” the USDA press release states. He praised the “record productivity” of U.S. farms, which he predicted would “enjoy a record $47.5 billion trade surplus” with the rest of the world this year. He vowed the Obama administration would push trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, subjecting 100 million new consumers to the delights of U.S. corn and soy.

As for ethanol, curiously, the USDA press release on the speech doesn’t mention it. But according to an account of the speech by reporter Daniel Looker of Agriculture.com, the topic earned Vilsack “some of his best applause lines in his speech.” Vilsack reacted defensively to critics of the government’s various schemes to prop up corn-based ethanol production. He declared, “I’m here to suggest today that those who seek to slow the process down … do not understand the power of this idea,” Looker reports. The audience, presumably, responded with roars of approval.

It so happens that in The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry eviscerated just this kind of agribiz boosterism among USDA officials. Berry has lots of fun quoting a speech by a ‘70s-era USDA apparatchik sounding very much like Vilsack today: “true agripower … generates agridollars through agricultural exports … once again growth in U.S. farm productivity is on the rise … With additional income from exports, U.S. farmers are able to purchase more household appliances, farm equipment, building supplies, and other capital and consumer goods.”

Berry is withering in response, mocking the speech’s “self-congratulation,” its “confusions of purpose, the complacency, the jargon, the sprains and ruptures of sense, the ignorance or ignoring of consequence, the social and economic prejudices ritualized in progressivist clichés.” Berry continues:

“Agripower,” it will be noted, is not measured by the fertility or health of the soil, or the health, wisdom, thrift, or stewardship of the farming community. It is measured by its ability to produce a market surplus, which generates “agridollars.” It is to be measured by “productivity, combined with processing and marketing efficiency.” The income from this increased production, we are told, is spent by farmers not for soil maintenance or improvement, water conservation, or erosion control, but rather for “purchased inputs.”

Wendell Berry is emerging as a figure who is much-saluted but little-heeded by those in power. Yet his critique is as relevant today as it was in 1977. If President Obama really wants to honor Berry, he’ll give the Unsettling of America a close read — and assign it to Vilsack as well. And the two of them will dig deep into the 50-Year Farm Bill [PDF], a plan recently cooked up by Berry and associates to rescue U.S. farm policy from its fixation on promoting the short-term interests of agribusiness over the long-term ones of farmers, the environment, and society as whole.

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