As President-Elect Obama stands with Al Gore by his side for the world to see, vowing to combat climate change, a decision he will make in a matter of days will decide the future of federal policy towards sustainability, without most people even realizing it. Obama’s future cabinet is quickly taking shape, but one key position is still very much up in the air – The Secretary of Agriculture.
Since the moment that Barack Obama was elected our future president, several food activists – including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters – have been calling for a radical overhaul of the USDA, with Pollan even calling for the appointment of US Food Czar independent of the government organization. However, in as much as Obama vowed to buck Old Washington traditions and ring in an era of change, it seems that in this case, the President-Elect is unwilling or unable to do so.
An op-ed column in the New York Times this morning frames the point well: “A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.”
Yet, the USDA still very much caters to the farming industry and not necessarily – pardon the sad attempt at humor – Joe the Plumber. We all remember the contentious Farm Bill that passed earlier this year. The problem, for many, is the farm lobby. It is one of the most powerful institutions in the US, and one of the few instances where there is practically outright bipartisan support by the Washington policymakers.
“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket,” says Pollan, referring to the industries benefiting the most from subsidies allocated in things like the Farm Bill. “High fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food.”
If Obama’s current top choice for the position is chosen, Pollan and the people behind FoodDemocracyNow.org feel that sustainable agriculture, the revitalization of rural economies, the protection of our nation’s food supply, and the protection of the environment will become further in jeopardy.
The person at the top of the short list is Dennis Wolff, currently Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture. Wolff comes from a long line of dairy farmers. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Dairy Stakeholders and Penn State University Board of Trustees. He also has some of the closest ties to Monsanto, the company that has been mired in controversy both for its utilization of GMO and bovine growth hormone as well as its questionable lobbying practices.
In a story last month, DailyKos called Wolff, “Monsanto’s Shill,” and indicted him for having made several contradictory or necessarily non-progressive comments recently. One excerpt of a monthly column that Wolff puts out shows him calling products labeled grass-fed, organic, or natural examples of “manipulative marketing.”
In addition to having an open letter to the President-Elect, stressing the kind of the vision this appointee should have, FoodDemocracyNow.org also has an online petition calling for the appointment of a leader who has “demonstrated a commitment to the goals that [Obama] articulated during [his] campaign.”
Though the Wolffs of the world are not the list, FoodDemocracyNow’s choices include Gus Schumacher, Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Sarah Vogel, former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota; and Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in the Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture, and co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
To view the entire list as well as sign the petition urging Obama to make a decision that will create a “prosperous future for rural America and a healthy future for all of America’s citizens,” click here.