Ben Nelson and Debbie StabenowSens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).In our recent “Villains of the Food System poll,” the Congressional ag committees placed a respectable second, bested (worsted?) only by GMO-seed giant Monsanto.

We characterized the committees as a “two-headed, yet seemingly brainless monster … fattened by steady influxes of agrichemical industry cash.” Its crime: Always managing to stymie federal food-policy reform.

Well, one of that hoary monster’s heads is about to get radical plastic surgery. The New York Times‘ highly regarded election-handicapping guru Nate Silver gives the current chair of the Senate ag committee, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a 0.1 percent chance of winning re-election next week. Getting a reading like that from Silver is like being on life support and seeing Dr. Kevorkian’s friendly mug looming over your bed.

Lincoln’s tenure as ag committee chair has been short; she took over after Ted Kennedy’s death last year, when previous chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) replaced Kennedy atop the Senate health committee. Throughout her career in the Senate, Lincoln has been a reliable champion of her state’s large-scale cotton producers and industrial-meat interests.

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So who’s up for the ag committee chair? Politico reports that Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is next in line, as the highest-ranking committee member who doesn’t already chair a major committee.

But there’s a catch, says Politico: committee member Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is a conservative Democrat who will be hotly wooed by the Republicans to switch parties if they get within striking distance of taking the Senate. The Democrats would, of course, fight to keep him — and the top ag committee post would be a “really big carrot for Democrats to hold in front of him that might keep him in the tent,” a Congressional expert told Politico.

So it looks like the next Senate ag chief will be Stabenow or Nelson. Which one would be better in terms of prospects for food policy reform?

Both are willing recipients of agribusiness cash. Stabenow took a robust $228,000 from agribusiness interests from 2005 to 2010; Nelson brought in a whopping $597,000 over the same period.

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Over on FireDogLake, the blogger Emptywheel has a great post contrasting Stabenow and Nelson on a geopolitical basis. Emptywheel points out that even though Stabenow’s home state, Michigan, lies in the Midwest, its agricultural economy is radically different from those of its neighbors in the Corn Belt. Citing this USDA document, she reports that Michigan’s ag sector is geared heavily toward fruit and vegetable production, with a crop diversity “second only to [California], but (because of the scale) much less dominated by big players.”

Meanwhile, Nelson’s Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, concentrates heavily on industrial corn and beef.

Emptywheel concludes that Stabenow would likely be more like to challenge agribusiness as usual:

[I]f Stabenow gets the Chair it’ll put someone who is not beholden to Big Ag the way the Ag Chairmen typically are. At a time when the local Ag movement is picking up steam, we might have someone whose constituency would support such an effort.

Whichever one ends up with the post, the next ag committee chair will likely guide the Senate through the 2012 Farm Bill. We’ll be keeping an eye on this struggle as it plays out over the coming weeks.

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