Catherine WotekiCatherine WotekiThe long-simmering debate about Obama’s ag policy — whether it represents a new paradigm, agribusiness as usual, or some enigmatic combination — has a new data point to consider.

Earlier this month, Congress approved Obama’s nomination of Catherine Woteki, the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. The appointment drew little attention in the press, including the sustainable-food blogosphere. That’s surprising, because Woteki comes to her new position after a five-year stint as global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., the multinational junk-food giant.

In her new role, Woteki will direct the U.S. government’s entire agricultural research budget. That means she will supervise Roger Beachy, head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who oversees the USDA’s billion-dollar-a-year competitive grants program. Beachy is a genetic scientist with strong ties to GM seed giant Monsanto; he is openly hostile to organic agriculture. At a time when U.S. farms desperately need to move toward more sustainable methods, federally supported agriculture research has fallen into the hands of a Monsanto man answering to a junk-food exec.

Somewhere in the East Wing, Michelle Obama must be fuming. The first lady has labored hard to fight the rising tide of diet-related maladies among children — and her husband has now handed the nation’s agricultural research agenda to someone who recently owed her living to robust sales of stuff like Milky Way, M&M’s, Twix, Skittles, Wrigley’s gum, and Snickers bars, all heavily marketed to kids.

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With its $30 billion in annual revenue, Mars is the sixth-largest privately held company in the United States. In addition to heavily sweetened candy, Mars churns out convenience fare like Uncle Ben’s rice and pet food like Whiskas brand.

Woteki has a PhD in nutrition. It would be interesting to hear her blunt thoughts on the nutritional value of Skittles, which contain the following ingredients:

Sugar, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Apple Juice from Concentrate, Less than 2 percent Citric Acid, Dextrin, Modified Corn Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Coloring (includes Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 2 Lake, Yellow 5, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1 Lake, Blue 1), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)

Woteki’s new post represents a return to, not her debut at, the USDA (bio here). She held a variety of high-level positions in the agency under Bill Clinton, including a stint in the same position she now holds. The Clinton administration was generally quite friendly to the interests of Big Food. Woteki epitomized the administration’s gung-ho attitude toward genetically modified (GM) seed industry in a 1996 paper she co-wrote on “The Administration’s Responsibility to the Consumer” in regards to GM seeds. The paper never mentions potential ecological or public-health issues around GM seeds; it concludes, in essence, that the government’s only responsibility to the public concerning the technology is to support it vigorously.

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Before taking the Mars job in 2005, she served as dean of agriculture and professor of human nutrition at Iowa State University, a prominent ag-research university with multiple ties to agribusiness. To get a sense of Woteki’s tenure at ISU, I called a former colleague of hers there: Fred Kirschenmann, former president and current distinguished fellow at ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of New York-based Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Kirschenman’s time as president of the Leopold Center coincided with Woteki’s deanship of the ag department, which oversees the center. Kirschenman was forced out of the presidency of Leopold in 2005, at the behest of Woteki’s successor, interim dean Wendy Wintersteen. Kirschenmann’s ouster as president of Leopold drew widespread outrage in the sustainable-ag world; it was widely read, by Kirschenmann himself and others, as a purge executed by industrial-ag interests.

In a phone interview this week, Kirschenmann told me that Woteki’s time as ISU ag dean started promisingly and ended with a thud. “When she first came on board, she asked me to cowrite a white paper about the possibility of starting a new ‘Center for Agricultural Ecology,'” Kirschenmann told me. The idea was to create a counterweight to the ag department’s heavy involvement in GM research.

“We cowrote the paper, and Woteki expressed support for the idea,” he said. But then, suddenly, she withdrew her support. “She even told us she preferred not to use the word ‘ecology,’ because it made people uncomfortable.” I asked Kirschenmann why Woteki had raised the idea of an agro-ecology center and then abruptly crushed it. He said he could only guess, “but you have to understand that four forces have a lot of power in Iowa ag: the National Corn Growers Association, the National Soybean Growers, the Farm Bureau, and the Pork Producers Association.”

Kirschenmann added that after the promising start, Woteki did “nothing bold or innovative” in her ISU tenure. He was not encouraged by the prospects of Woteki heading up USDA research. “She won’t stand up to the Monsantos of the world,” he said. “She won’t even try.”

At a time of rapid climate change and resource depletion, “we desperately need bold research from the USDA,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll get it from Woteki.”