Will Obama lead food and ag policy in new directions?

He raised hope late in the campaign season, when he indicated he had read — and understood — Michael Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” essay.

Since then, things have turned more dour. Obama made a boldly conventional pick for USDA chief — a corn-belt ex-governor with ties to the GMO and biofuel industries. And now the chief adviser to this campaign on agricultural issues, Marshall Matz, has come out with a Chicago Tribune op-ed advocating a business-as-usual approach to ag policy. Matz co-wrote the piece with Democratic Party eminence grise (and farm-state politician) George McGovern.

The Matz/McGovern op-ed is a lightweight document that hangs on easy platitudes. It implies that in order to "feed the world," we’ll need to rely on chemical-intensive, industrial-scale agriculture, largely centered in the U.S. (for the benefit of "those around the globe who lack America’s productive resources.")

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But instead of teasing out an argument to back up that premise, the authors mount a weak defense of industrial ag. "Commercial agriculture is still the backbone of the economy in most rural counties across the nation," they declare — even though industrial ag has essentially emptied the countryside and hollowed out rural economies.

"And commercial agriculture is a big factor in offsetting our unfavorable balance of international trade," they continue. That’s just a pathetic argument. First, our ag trade balance has shown an overall declining trend for years. Second, if we’re relying on farming to offset the decline of our industrial base, we’re in deep trouble. Third, when we force our ag goods into other countries’ markets, we undermine those countries’ food security. Fourth, … oh never mind.

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Matz and McGovern take a patronizing view of organic ag: "There is an important role for organic agriculture and, indeed, some consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods that are certified as organic." Right, but everyone else deserves industrial crap.

Biofuels, meanwhile, get a rousing endorsement: "Agriculture is key in our becoming less dependent on foreign oil by converting crops into biofuels and renewal [sic] energy."

Matz and McGovern do deliver one notable flash of insight: "A case can be made that our entire consumer economy is fueled by cheap food." That’s depressingly true; some of us were hoping that Obama would push for a new economy built on widely accessible healthy and sustainable food. These guys are pushing in the opposite direction.

Yet Matz’s fealty to an agribusiness-as-usual approach is hardly surprising. During the campaign, Matz was co-chair of Obama’s rural-outreach committee. He’s a partner at Olsson Frank Weeda, which hails itself as the "nation’s premier FDA, USDA, and health care law firm, serving clients before federal agencies, courts, and Congress."

Matz operates within the firm’s agriculture "practice area," which lists among its accomplishments stuff like: "Successfully challenged USDA’s procedure for adopting safe handling and labeling regulations for meat and poultry products" and "Successfully defended against enforcement actions brought under the Packers and Stockyards Act."

The firm employs folks like John R. Block as "senior policy advisors" on ag issues. Block brings prime connections to the table in his role as ag lobbyist. He has served as Ronald Reagan’s USDA chief; and he has done a stint on the board of Archer Daniels Midland, and he currently sits on the boards of Deere and Hormel Foods.

Matz himself has built a reputation as an advocate for the National School Lunch Program. Back in the 1970s, he served as General Counsel to the U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which was chaired by McGovern.Since leaving his Senate post, Matz has served as a lobbyist for the School Nutrition Association (formerly American School Food Service Association).

While no doubt earnest in his concern for the nutritional needs of schoolchildren, Matz operates in an era of de facto privatization of school lunches — their nearly wholesale surrender to heat-and-serve products from our nation’s largest food-processing corporations. The School Nutrition Association’s 2008 annual conference reflects the dismal state of modern school lunches. Sponsors include ConAgra Foodservice, the Corn Refiners Association (representing high-fructose corn syrup interests), General Mills Bakeries & Foodservice, Kellogg’s Food Away From Home, Nestle Waters North America, and Tyson Foods. Matz gave a "legislative update" at the conference.

An excellent Mother Jones article from 2003 details Matz’s role on behalf of the School Nutrition Association in squashing a proposed Clinton-era reform that would have limited fat content in school lunches (and thus enraged industrial meat producers).