Thursday, February 5, 2009

Farm-Food Policy Memo USA: The New Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Speaks; And His First Message is An Interesting One

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States in early November, 2008, a group of U.S. food and agriculture policy reformers that included the well known author and food policy reformist Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food" and other books) and "foodie," organic and local foods activist, cookbook author and restaurant-owner Alice Waters, sent the then President-Elect a letter asking him to appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who would "put eaters first" in U.S. agriculture and food policy. The group also created an online petition in which they urged Americans who agreed with their position for an "eaters' first" Ag Secretary to post their names on it. The petition was then sent to the team Obama.

[Here are two links to the petition and related information from the farm-food policy activists: [Pollan Events Petition letter] [Pollan Events] 40,000 names!]

In early January of this year, then President-Elect Obama nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to be his Secretary of Agriculture. As Governor of Iowa Vilsack was a solid supporter of the state's agribusiness industry, as well as a "go-getter" in bringing ethanol fuel plants, production and refineries to the Midwestern, farm-belt state, as one would suspect the Governor of Iowa to do if he wanted to get re-elected.

Vilsack was also a strong supporter of now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President rather than President Obama. However, as soon as Barack Obama cinched the nomination, Vilsack was on board as a major supporter. It was Iowa in fact, where the President won the crucial first-in-the-nation key Presidential primary, that Barack Obama says was key to his victory in November, 2008.

Following the announcement that Vilsack would be the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, feelings and opinions among the members of the U.S. ag-food policy reform movement ranged from outright indignation, to reservation that it would be "business as usual." For others, including Obama supporters, it wasn't such a shock. After all President Obama campaigned from day one as a moderate Democrat. He advocated change for sure but in a more evolutionary rather than revolutionary manner. Vilsack is a moderate Democrat, just like the President.

A few folks in the farm-food policy reform movement urged the others to give Vilsack (and President Obama since the Secretary carries out the President's policies) a chance. Michael Pollan has been one of those taking a more moderate voice regarding the Vilsack selection. Natural~Specialty Foods Memo (NSFM) has been urging the same. Seldom are things so black and white as it's either "Eaters First" or "Agribusiness First."

Vilsack, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate just a little over two weeks ago, hasn't offered much publicly in terms of how he views the Department of Agriculture and U.S. ag-farm policy -- until now. That's probably good because we appreciate cabinet secretaries who take a couple-to-three weeks to first figure out where the bathrooms are before speaking out. And there are many bathrooms in the huge U.S. Department of Agriculture building where Vilsack now works.

In today's Washington Post, Secretary Vilsack gives his first full interview since being confirmed. The interview is written as a feature piece by Washington Post staff writer Jane Black.

And in the interview piece, the Secretary of Agriculture addresses just the issue the farm-food policy reformers are most concerned with: The focus and balance in U.S. agricultural and food policy between "eaters" (consumers), farmers and agribusiness. We toss in food companies and retailers of all shapes and sizes as well. They need to be at the table.

In fact, the story's headline is: "Vilsack: USDA Must Serve Eaters as Well as Farmers." Rather on-message for those looking to hear that message, we must say. And keep this in mind: If a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture who didn't have the trust and respect of agribusiness took the position Vilsack takes in the Washington Post interview piece, he or she likely would be the subject of tons of political backlash, as would the President that appointed that Secretary.

While Vilsack probably wouldn't have been our first choice for a variety of reasons, those who dismiss him out of hand should think about the fact that merely having a head of the U.S. Department of Agricultural who agrees across the board on the goals of the farm-food policy reformist movement doesn't mean he or she could get anything done. It's all about that credibility issue we mentioned. There are multiple constituencies to address, not just one. And like it or not that cuts both ways -- reformist and agribusiness (constituencies), along with a couple others.

Below is how Washington Post staff writer Jane Black begins her story about the new head of the massive U.S. Department of Agriculture, who she interviewed this week:

"When former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was nominated as secretary of agriculture, many food policy activists, noting his reputation as a friend to corporate agriculture and ethanol producers, rendered a verdict that was swift and harsh: agribusiness as usual.

But Vilsack, newly installed in his regal but still-undecorated office on Independence Avenue, is out to redefine himself and his vision. In an interview this week, he called for a "new day" for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sprawling bureaucracy, which he believes should champion not only farmers but also everyone who eats.

'This is a department that intersects the lives of Americans two to three times a day. Every single American,'he said. 'o I absolutely see the constituency of this department as broader than those who produce our food -- it extends to those who consume it."

The writer also quotes Michael Pollan in the piece, presumably after reading him the comments Secretary Vilsack made in the interview, published above and elsewhere in the story. In response, Ms. Black quotes Pollan: "He's definitely sounding a different note than his predecessors," said Michael Pollan, the reform-minded author of the bestseller "In Defense of Food." "Whether they'll be reflected in policies remains to be seen."

[Click here to read the full story from today's Washington Post: "Vilsack: USDA Must Serve Eaters as Well as Farmers."]

Indeed Vilsack is sounding considerably different than his predecessors. The mere fact he is speaking out makes him completely different than the George W. Bush Administration Secretary's of Agriculture the past eight years. Quick quiz: Can you name the last Secretary of Agriculture; the one who left with the outgoing Bush Administration? Not easy to do, is it?

Additionally, the fact that Vilsack is speaking out so early and so clearly (such clarity, which isn't a Washington D.C. trait, leaves him very little wiggle room later on) means he's going to have to follow-through on much of what he is advocating. Of course, keep in mind that Congress, with its power of the purse, will ultimately decide the direction of U.S. farm-food policy, which is something reformist need to always keep top-of-mind. In other words, don't just focus on and put all your hopes in President Obama.

But the Administration can certainly lead. Set the course. And it is a course that needs balancing. It's not about good "eaters" and small-growers and bad agribusiness and global food companies. If only it were so simple.

But balance indeed is needed. And as President Obama has been advocating, and so far walking the walk on, it's time to put aside the heavy partisanship. We suggest the same when it comes to farm and food policy. A little cooperation and a meeting of the minds from all sides will go a very long way.

[NSFM Editor's Note: The artwork at the top of this post is titled "The American Farm." It's by American artist Warren Kimble. You can learn more about the artist and his work here.]

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