Update [2008-11-20 5:47:7 by Tom Philpott]: Correction: Jill Richardson of La Vida Locavore pointed me to an error in the original post. About former Monsanto vice-president and FDA official Michael R. Taylor, I had written that “He was particularly useful in the effort to prevent abstaining dairies from advertising their milk as rBGH-free.” Not so, Jill informs me. Taylor actually supported allowing dairies to label their milk rBGH-free, so long as they made no health claims. The error has been removed from the below text. I regret the error.

Whither Obama’s food/ag policy?

I don’t think I’m a jaded enough observer of Washington’s ways to figure it out. But here’s what I know.

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  • The transition named its "team members" looking at energy and natural resources agencies, which includes USDA. The list includes Michael R. Taylor, a man who spent his career bouncing between the employ of GMO-seed giant Monsanto and Bill Clinton’s FDA and USDA. Taylor is widely credited with ushering Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) through the FDA regulatory process and into the milk supply.
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  • Over on Ethicurean, Steph Larsen of Center For Rural Affairs has a good post on the dreary realpolitik around who gets to be the next USDA chief. Have you seen those lists (like this one) that contain names like Hightower and Pollan? Forget about it, Steph says. According to Steph: "The process of becoming Secretary of Agriculture begins long before a presidential election. Candidates typically have myriad political connections and make themselves useful in the campaign of the eventual winner. By election time, the list of possibilities is already well-established." That means the petition currently being circulated to demand Pollan be chosen is doomed. And anyway, who would leave an endowed Berkeley professorship and a regular gig at The New York Times Magazine to run a sprawling bureaucracy?
  • So who are the serious candidates for USDA chief? Steph’s post contains a list, and here’s one from Reuters and another from an ag trade publication. These are hardly inspiring names. Even in this era of "change," it seems like you generally need to have proven your fealty to GMOs and corn-based ethanol to win serious consideration as USDA chief. Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who briefly vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, is emerging as a front-runner. Vilsack hews tightly to the biotech-industry party line; and he hotly promoted corn-based ethanol while governor. On the other hand, none other than Grist’s own David Roberts declared his energy plan during last year’s Democratic primaries the "ballsiest and most detailed any candidate from either party has offered." And Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me that Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack’s bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate.
  • There are certainly more egregious names on the short list than Vilsack. Last week, Pennsylvania ag secretary Dennis Wolff emerged as a contender. Wolff is notorious for unilaterally trying to prevent his state’s dairy farmers for labeling their milk rBGH-free. Former Texas congressman and Big Ag lobbyist Charles Stenholm is another profoundly depressing name.
  • One name I’m intrigued by is John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd helped lead the fight to hold USDA accountable for its long history of stiffing black farmers; his nomination is being championed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Virginia-based Boyd himself runs a relatively small-scale farm; seems like his position as a USDA outsider might lead him to champion the interests of small farmers in an agency that’s long been beholden to large industrial operations.
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  • Michael Pollan, who recently laid out an ambitious blueprint for ag policy in the next administration that Obama says he has read, recently appeared on the Brian Lehrer show. Pollan expressed optimism that Obama would move in progressive directions on ag, declaring the president-elect the most synthesis-oriented chief executive we’ve had in a long time. Pollan laughed off speculation that he could be appointed USDA chief, noting that the marijuana chapter of Botany of Desire would cause vetting trouble; and pushed the idea, which he first floated on Grist, that Obama name a "food czar."