ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Vilsack caved on GM alfalfa, so what's the impact?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack decided this week to fully deregulate the planting of genetically modified alfalfa, so why should you care?

This move had been opposed by organic farmers and consumers because of the strong possibility that genetically modified alfalfa will cross-pollinate non-GM alfalfa. This has been recognized by the Supreme Court as potentially harmful to the organic sector, since organic foods cannot be produced with genetically modified crops. Once organic livestock are fed GM alfalfa, they can no longer be called organic.

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers. As George Siemon, head of the Organic Valley dairy co-operative, said: 

The biotech industry has waged a complete war on the Secretary of Agriculture for ... the consideration of a co-existence proposal. They used all their influence to have the Secretary’s job challenged. There here have been op-eds in major papers and magazines (“Sack Vilsack,” Forbes), special meetings with the White House, grilling by the Justice Department, endless lobbying, and on Thursday of last week, a Congressional member forum was held where the Secretary was taken to the wood shed and asked repeatedly why he had not approved RR-alfalfa sooner. All this for simply opening the coexistence conversation and acknowledging that property rights and other markets should be considered.

As Liana Hoodes, director of the National Organic Coalition, said: "Organic farmers and others are now left, once again, having to take all the precautions while biotech takes little responsibility."

So what's the potential impact?

1. Less organic forage crops. Why would any farmer plant organic alfalfa when he knows a farmer nearby is planting GM alfalfa? Not only will his costs be higher in terms of cultivating an organic crop, but the possibility now exists that the crop will not be organic once it's harvested. So why bother?

2. Fewer organic dairy farmers. Organic dairy farmers plant alfalfa in fields where their cows graze, but they may also buy hay for winter. With fewer sources of organic forages, costs for organic dairy farmers will rise. What's the smartest decision here: Reduce your risk by avoiding the organic market altogether. Or maybe buy your organic forage crops from China, as we've seen with soybeans.

3. Higher prices for organic consumers. If the supply of organic forages falls, the cost will rise. Organic dairy farmers will either be squeezed and go under or organic milk prices will rise. The impact: higher prices at the checkout counter for moms and dads buying organic milk for their kids. (Or maybe we'll see more imports of organic milk powder from nations with stricter GM controls to keep the market going.)

4. Less investment in organic meat. Organic meat has been a fast growing sector of the market, but why would anyone invest in this business if you could be disqualified by contaminated feed? The rational business decision would be to ignore the U.S. and invest in organic operations outside the U.S. -- Uruguay anyone?

5. Fewer conventional export opportunities. The contamination of rice fields by GM test plots in Louisiana led to multimillion dollar law suits. Why? Conventional rice farmers lost markets in countries that didn't want to import GM rice. The same could be true of forages -- that is, unless the U.S. is successful in getting the rest of the world to buy GM crops as the State Department is trying to do. 

Now you might argue over whether Round-Up Ready Alfalfa is safe or not. But long before that argument's settled, organic farmers will face major economic losses -- the same small farmers that the USDA likes to present as poster children for agriculture. 

The other possibility is that organic farmers, certifiers, processors, retailers and consumers knowingly accept some degree of genetically modified crops -- despite regulations preventing it. Either way, consumers will take a hit -- in what way or how big a hit? Only time will tell.

- Samuel Fromartz

Behind the Organic Pasture Rule at the USDA

After one of the most contentious issues in the organic food world was put to rest last week, I happened to be feeding a few goats in Massachusetts. I pulled some grass from a nearby field and walked over to the animals. They came right up to me and started eating the fresh forage from my hand. There was hay nearby but the green stuff clearly won the taste test.

Over at the USDA, it took more than a decade of complaints and advisory statements, reams of documents, a dairy symposium, five listening sessions, at least two comment periods, the overhaul of the USDA's National Organic Program, the new Obama administration, and vigorous lobbying by small dairy farmer groups to arrive at the same conclusion as these goats -- ruminants such as cows prefer grass and they should be required to graze a minimum amount of pasture on an organic farm.

Why was this so contentious? Because cows don't need to be on pasture to produce milk. In many conventional dairies, cows are housed indoors. In fact, if they eat more grain rations and expend less energy walking to pasture they actually produce more milk, not less. That efficient factory-like reality led large-scale organic dairy operations to minimize pasture, maximize milk production and thus undercut all those other farmers who wanted to let cows express their natural behavior and eat grass. And these large-scale farms could do so because organic regulations, until now, only required vague "access to pasture," not a bright line minimum standard for grazing that all farms must meet.

Now, with the new pasture rule released last week, the bright line is there. The regulation states that cows must be out on pasture throughout the grazing season, though not less than 120 days. They must  also get a minimum of 30% of their nutrition from fresh grass (as measured by dry weight, since grass contains far more water than grain). This standard was arrived at by consensus by organic dairy farmers around the nation nearly five years ago. It will take full effect a year from now.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory panel which recommends all regulatory changes to the Secretary of Agriculture, had at first recommended that the 120 day/30% minimum be for "guidance" only. But in an especially detailed and well-reasoned document explaining the regulation (pdf), the USDA said, "public comments showed strong backing for a regulatory change" -- not simply guidance.

The agency enacted the bright line standard to avoid confusion among certifiers who had interpreted the "access to pasture" prescription quite differently. (Some required grazing while others clearly did not). Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the USDA made the change "to satisfy consumer expectations that ruminant livestock animals graze on pastures during the grazing season."

Evidence of those consumer expectations appeared after the first proposed rule, released in April 2006, when more than 80,500 commented. Of those, just 28 were opposed to any changes in the pasture requirement and "there was a consistent theme of opposition to confining animals and feedlot feeding," the agency noted.

Consumers, farmers, retailers and public advocates spoke. And, in this case, the USDA listened -- it just took awhile.

That voice is especially important because the National Organic Program was designed by Congress as a "marketing program." (It is officially agnostic on whether organic foods or organic production practices are better or healthier). If the market, defined by the 30% or so of Americans who occasionally buy organic products, think that organic practices are failing to live up to their expectations, the agriculture secretary has reason to "satisfy consumer expectations" and change the program. That was clearly the case in the pasture dispute, where consumers felt large-scale feedlot organic farms were manipulating organic practices with a loophole.

As another example, the agency pointed out that antibiotics are clearly prohibited from organic production. Consumers point to the absence of antibiotics as well as synthetic growth hormones in production as reasons to buy organic dairy products, livestock, meat and poultry. Yet the agency felt compelled "to further clarify the prohibition on the use of antibiotics." 

The reason? "In administering this program we have found antibiotics in certified organic feed," the agency said. The document continues:

Whether used for therapeutic or subtherapeutic reasons or to increase feed efficiency or rate of gain, all antibiotics are prohibited...  It is the producer’s responsibility, to obtain assurances from feed suppliers that the feed products supplied are free of antibiotics.

But the intent of meeting consumer expectations might not only apply to pasture or livestock practices. If consumers have an expectation that organic food should be free of genetically modified crops, then the agency should ensure against GM contamination. (Genetically modified crops are banned from organic agriculture). In fact, this issue may arise sooner rather than later if genetically modified alfalfa is approved by the USDA. Organic farmers plant alfalfa in their fields, so those crops could be subject to pollen contamination from genetically modified alfalfa. That prospect has led to yet another consumer campaign for protections and more law suits are likely on the horizon if the GM crops are approved.

Despite clear consumer preference, there were objections to the new pasture standard.

First, those who opposed it said the standard said it would raise costs dramatically by increasing the amount of land needed for grazing. (This is a familiar argument of anti-organic camp -- that organic production requires more land). But the USDA said: "We received other studies challenging (this) assertion ... These studies discuss a prevalent misconception that grazing systems require more acres for the same amount of output." 

It also found ample organic land for grazing, especially in the West, where many objections to the pasture standard originated. (The bigger issue for large operations is moving cows from pasture to the milking parlor -- a nearby feedlot is far easier to manage). 

A notable objection had been lodged by Straus Family Creamery, a pioneering organic dairy in California which found the ruling overly prescriptive. But in the final rule, the USDA stated that the 120 day minimum did not have to be continuous -- it could be met with breaks over any defined 365 day period. But it also made clear that if the 120-minimum could not be met, the farm shouldn't be organic.

...if the location is consistently too rainy or the temperature and humidity are too high or low to safely graze animals throughout a 120-day minimum grazing season and still comply with all applicable parts of this regulation, the animal cannot be raised in such location for organic production.

In the end, Straus found the final rule acceptable. “The final rule allows for a grazing season that considers regional variation in climate, soil conditions, and regional water quality regulations,” said Albert Straus. “We’re very grateful to all of the consumers who urged the USDA to account for such regional variations in the final rule. It’s exciting to see the National Organic Program continue to get stronger."

As with many past examples in the organic food arena, a diverse and often conflicted number of constituents came together to urge passage of this rule -- including various farmer groups, consumer organizations, processors, retailers, certifiers, environmental advocates and others. That lesson should be kept in mind for the future.

Further background on the rule change can be found at:

- Samuel Fromartz

When it comes to sustainable ag, here's where your tax dollars are going

Here's a few things Congress did in conference for the 2010 ag appropriations bill, which now goes to the full house and senate.

  • The Organic Transitions Research Program was increased from $1.8 million last year to $5 million. This is a competitive grant program, which will fund research on the way organic farming affects water quality. 
  • The Value Added Producer Grants program was increased from $18.9 million last year to $20.4 million. This money can be used by farmers, ranchers, fisherman or other producers who want to "add value" to their underlying product, either by making a new product (flour from wheat, for example) or going for a particular label (like organic) that enhances a commodity's value.
  • The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program had $5 million added to its $4 million mandatory base, so that $9 million will be available to help support rural microbusiness development in this program's first year. Food and farming can be among the businesses funded, though the entrepreneurs must be in rural areas.
  • The Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program was increased from $2.6 last year to $2.8 million. This service helps farmers with advice on sustainable agriculture issues. 
  • The Organic Marketing and Data Collection Initiative was increased from $500,000 to $750,000. The money will be used to analyze the organic market.
  • Finally, funding for the National Organic Program (which just got a new director) went to $7 million from $3.9 million.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the only disappointment was a token increase for  the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. "But we have reason to expect that next year's (Fiscal Year 2011) Obama Budget will propose a significant increase, which will make it easier to persuade Congress to increase it," the group said.

Local Food Advocates Pumped by USDA Initiative

I asked a range of people involved in local food systems to react to the announcements last week by the USDA in promoting local food. Here's what they had to say:

From California, Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change:

After so many years in the trenches of the struggle to awaken the nation to the value of reconnecting with producers and the importance of food production, it is totally thrilling to see the USDA champion a valued cause. I agree with Secretary Vilsack that "local and regional food systems" are a powerful leverage point for economic, health, and environmental improvement. With this latest initiative, the People's Garden and the White House Garden, the Secretary and Administration are moving the nation into a new era, which I feel will be seen historically as a renewal and renaissance for American agriculture and rural communities, which have suffered degradation for too long. I heartily applaud the USDA, the Secretary and the President!

In the video announcement, Secretary Vilsack did point out that USDA will use "existing programs" to shed light on foodsheds. This is good, but the concept is so divergent from the past trend that we may find soon, that either existing programs will need significant retooling, or that a new, specialized program focused on peri-urban agriculture could be very powerful. But I am open to working with what we currently have, particularly until the next farm bill and given the effort to contain the deficit. The farm bill is the most logical place to reorient resources. I have faith that this Secretary and this Administration will be focused on what is needed to make it work.

From Oregon, Deborah Kane, vice president of farming and food, Ecotrust:

It’s fantastic. Secretary Vilsack posted a youtube video and invited the American people to join him in a conversation about food and the role it plays in our lives. That’s extraordinary. When he first joined the department he said USDA was the people’s department because it was the entity focused on food - something that is so sacrosanct to us all. He drew a subtle but important distinction and reminded us all that agriculture, while perhaps a secondary and nebulous thought to most, is what give us something we’re all intimately familiar with, food. Turns out he meant it. I love seeing him invite us to the table, so to speak, to talk about food as if we all have a vested interest. We indeed do. 

And since he’s invited a real conversation, I suspect he’ll get it from both sides. Remember his confirmation hearing when the diminutive remarks were made about organic hobby farmers? This week Vilsack has legitimized “alternative” agriculture and I suspect will only continue to do so.

The funding announcements are also interesting. So far it looks like repackaging of old programs, which is great because, again, it elevates alternative agriculture and legitimizes it within the Department. Brings it out of the shadows, as it were. I’ll be watching too to see new funding streams come on line as well.

From Iowa, Rich Pirog, marketing and food systems initiative leader at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture:

The latest announcement further reinforces what has been over the past year and half strong interest and engagement on local and regional food from many of the federal USDA agencies I work with. We've had USDA folks at the national level come out to Iowa and interact with our local groups - it is quite encouraging.

I think a key to making these resources as effective as possible is the strength of the networks that must be built among the state and regional USDA agency representatives and the non-profits, farm organizations, university, and state departments of agriculture and health.

Here in Iowa we have a strong culture of collaboration across these different organizations, and so we are moving forward rapidly to ensure that these resources will be leveraged well with to make the difference with farmers, communities, students, and other groups.

From Pennsylvania, Chris Fullerton, director of consumer outreach, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture:

It’s certainly refreshing to hear the USDA encourage folks to ‘Know Your Farmer’ – our Buy Fresh Buy Local program in Pennsylvania has been making that call for almost a decade now as part of a nationwide effort led by the FoodRoutes Network – but to back up this slogan with actual bucks? That’s icing on the cake.

USDA National Organic Program Gets New Leadership, Change Coming?

The USDA announced new leadership at the National Organic Program, which probably comes not a moment too soon. The program, which regulates organic agriculture in the US, has been beset by criticism. Now, with renewed focus, it will hopefully push forward. 

WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2009 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that Miles McEvoy has been hired to serve as Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP). McEvoy assumes his position on Oct. 1. Vilsack also announced that the NOP will become an independent program area within AMS because of the increased visibility and emphasis on organic agriculture throughout the farming community, evolving consumer preferences, and the enhanced need for governmental oversight of this widely expanded program. Organically grown and marketed agricultural products are of key interest to the Obama Administration, and the NOP will be receiving increased funding and staffing in the new fiscal year.

"Miles McEvoy has worked in the field of organic agriculture for more than two decades and has a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organic community," Vilsack said.

For more than 20 years, McEvoy led the Washington State Department of Agriculture's (WSDA) Organic Food Program, one of the nation's first state organic certification programs. In 2001, he helped establish the WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program. From 1993 until 1995, McEvoy was the founding Director of The Food Alliance, a program that blends sustainable farming practices and social welfare components into an eco-label program.

Read the rest of the release here.

USDA Launches Local Foods Blitz, Bans Fried Foods and Donuts in Cafeteria for a Day

I don't usually get calls from the USDA, let alone the deputy secretary, but there Kathleen Merrigan was on the phone from her car and it wasn't a prank. 

She wanted to talk about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign that the USDA launched this week, which centers on building buzz around local and regional food systems and "spurring economic opportunity." Merrigan is chairing the initiative, which comes not a moment too soon.

The USDA has finally recognized how important and vital local and regional food systems are -- and is tapping into the vibrant activity already underway by making an effort to open up its doors and purse strings. 

Among other things, the USDA is 

This sounds like a lot of hoopla -- you can review the press materials at the USDA links above -- but I did get a chance to ask a few questions, most notably, "What is this about?"

Merrigan said she has been quietly heading a task force since May to push local and regional agricultural initiatives. Representatives from various department programs are meeting biweekly to discuss how best to achieve that goal. Like Obama, Merrigan and her team seem impatient about getting things done.

"The secretary told me he wanted me to take on the local and regional food challenge -- it was a top priority of my job aside from the USDA budget," Merrigan said. "And, I'll always be involved in organic."

Given the size of the USDA - 114,000 employees - Merrigan felt it wasn't imperative to create new programs but to increase outreach to existing ones (and perhaps, though unstated, light a fire within the agency on this new priority). The effort also involves tweaking existing regulations and programs to make these goals easier to achieve.

The initiative even extends to the USDA cafeteria, where your intrepid blogger has actually eaten (I recommend the House Cafeteria up on the Hill instead). In any case, the USDA is offering dishes with locally grown products all week long.

Merrigan said the cafeteria is also banning donuts and fried foods on Wednesday and putting a sign on the soda machine "have you considered water, juice or milk?" Sounds almost radical.

"Maybe this will be my last act as deputy," she quipped.

But if staff groan about food police, at least they get to see a celebrity on hand: White House Chef Sam Kass will be doing a cooking demo in the USDA cafeteria on Wednesday. 

On Thursday, the action shifts to farmers markets, when the one down the street from the White House opens. Merrigan will be on hand. The USDA will also announce a series of farmers' market promotion grants, and research monies aimed at local food systems in the northeast. 

Finally, on Friday, it is trying its hand at internet democracy and launching a web site that includes outreach to citizens for their ideas. Not sure how this effort at crowd-sourcing will work out, given what happened when the White House tried it. But I gotta say, this is a sea change from the last team in charge. 

- Samuel Fromartz

"What's Her Name" (USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan) Concerns Grassley

This just in from Think Progress: The Des Moines Register asked Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, if he had any response to Obama's recent subcabinet appointments at the Agriculture Department. He responded by saying that he believed that most of the nominees were "well qualified" except for -- referring to Kathleen Merrigan -- "the woman from Tufts" who was confirmed by the Senate in April. 

GRASSLEY: I think everybody's well qualified to do what they're doing, and there's only one that I would raise a question about. And I probably shouldn't be raising a question except some things that I've read about where she's coming from, and I don't remember her name, but the woman from Tufts. 

QUESTION: Kathleen Merrigan. 

GRASSLEY: What's her name? 

QUESTION: Kathleen Merrigan.

GRASSLEY: Yes. Whoever - whatever her name is, I've read some things that would make some caution -- cause me to be cautious about her, but I need to get acquainted with her because it's not fair just to read third-party points and know exactly where she's coming from.

Asked to explain specifically what gave him pause about Merrigan, Grassley responded: 

GRASSLEY: I think, with - I don't know whether I can point to a specific thing, but it tends to me to be having an unrealistic view of American production agriculture.

Think Progress explains Grassley might have been referring to a talking point memo on Merrigan from agribusiness interests.

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer -- Kathleen Merrigan -- as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department's nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

Is a Grassley Merrigan lunch date is in order? Maybe Pollan can join them. He's in D.C. on May 15 for a reading.


Big Win for Sustainable Ag! Merrigan tapped for No. 2 Post at USDA

President Obama named Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts professor and a central figure for more than two decades in organic and sustainable farm policy, to the No. 2 position at USDA.

This amounts to a major win for organic, sustainable and local food advocates, since Merrigan is not only well-versed in these issues but has been a tireless advocate for them. Most notably, she wrote the Organic Food Production Act -- the law that governs the entire organic food sector -- as a staffer for Vermont Sen. Leahy back in the 1980s, then worked at USDA and the Wallace Center, before moving to Tufts.  

Although she had put forth her name for an undersecretary position -- I blogged about her here -- I hadn't heard any talk that she was in the running for the No. 2 position. 

"Sustainable and organic farmers are excited ... that someone who has been associated with these issues her whole career is going to be at that level in the department," said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

That sentiment will be echoed far and wide.

- Samuel Fromartz

Organic Heavyweights Back Vilsack

In an interesting move, a number of heavyweights in the organic food and farming world have launched a website supporting the nomination of Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture.

The people behind this effort include Denise O'Brien, the organic farmer who ran for secretary of agriculture of Iowa; Walter Robb, co-president of Whole Foods; Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farms; Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation; Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States; and many others.

I'm curious that this coalition felt compelled to take this step -- presumably to counter the criticism of groups like the Organic Consumers Association and possibly to leave open the door to Vilsack's office, once he is confirmed. As Scowcroft says on the site:

In recent weeks I have spoken to many of my colleagues in Iowa and toothers in the sustainable and organic agriculture communities nationwide. They spoke of a governor who listened seriously to their concerns and when politically possible provided workable solutions. Mind you I have no illusions concerning how “Washington works” and the challenges facing a USDA (never mind the nation and the world!) mired in systems that are unsustainable and in many cases broken beyond repair. The agro-industrial status quo will not easily give up its hold on power. Nevertheless many of us are working hard to advance highly qualified candidates for the Deputy Secretary and the under secretary positions. Governor Vilsack and the Obama Transition committee have taken our nominations seriously, and I believe they are working to bring a number of these candidates into the new USDA leadership.

Obama's USDA Secretary "Maybe Won't Suck?"

Obama's pick of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary set off a round of criticism in the blogusphere, because many of us were hoping that a more progressive leader would have a shot. It wasn't to be. 

Unlike his visionary pick of Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, Obama tapped a centrist with a long cozy relationship with Monsanto -- the GMO king -- a soft touch on CAFOs (factory animal farms) and a taste for corn ethanol. These might be called the three deadly sins of sustainable agriculture.

The indefatigable Kerry Truman over at Huffington Post has a fine round up of all the criticism, but then does one better: she actually contacted someone who worked with Vilsack for years, Denise O'Brien, the organic farmer who ran for Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture in 2006. O'Brien's comments are illuminating, because she actually tried to shift the status quo in the heart of corn country. She found Vilsack listened, and even offered his support when she had a shot at state office. Sadly, she lost.

I won't summarize her sentiments -- just click on over on the link. The upshot?  Maybe the dial shifts a bit with Vilsack. But for it to go further, advocates of a very different vision of food and farming will have to keep up their work. Recall, after two decades of pushing for reform, it's still the early innings on the national stage.

Organic Sustainable Department of Food?

Jim Riddle, a former chair of the National Organic Standards Board who is now organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota, tells me he is actively seeking a position at the USDA.

If he is named as organic adviser to the secretary, or head of the Agricultural Marketing Service, this would be a big gain for sustainability. Riddle worked tirelessly for years on the NOSB, trying to keep organic food truly organic. And he did that while working in partnership with the USDA -- not an easy feat. He has trained organic inspectors since the late 1980s and walks the talk.

"My wife, Joyce, and I have lived off the grid since 1984, producing all of our power from the sun, wind, and woods, living in our owner-built, energy-efficient earth-sheltered home. We raise a big garden and put up much of our food. For us, sustainability and green living are not just slogans – they are a way of life," he says.

I already noted that Kathleen Merrigan of Tufts is angling for a major post in the department. If Obama is serious about change -- in the food and agricultural sector -- these are the type of appointments his team should make, mirroring the encouraging news of Nobel Laureate Steven Chu to head the department of energy.

As for agriculture secretary, Nicholas Kristof put it well in the NY Times -- it's time for Obama to shift the focus of the department away from agribusiness interests and put it squarely on food.

He also linked to a petition advocating several names to head the department -- which I previously signed. The Ethicurean blog also has a good post summing up the leading candidates, the gist of which is that no front-runner has emerged.
- Samuel Fromartz

Fast-Tracking Sustainability at USDA

A lot of rich and worthwhile discussion has taken place lately about what government could do to promote greener agriculture, healthier food, and small scale farming, most notably in the comprehensive NY Times article by Michael Pollan. Supporters have gone so far as to petition the Obama transition team to appoint Pollan secretary of agriculture (he demurred in a comment on Ethicuraean).

Rather than push a dark horse, however, people interested in sustainable food and agriculture do have a real opportunity to support a significant appointment at the USDA. I'm speaking of Tufts University professor Kathleen Merrigan, who has been raised as a possible candidate for Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs.

Who is Merrigan and why should we care?

I first heard about Merrigan while working on Organic Inc., looking into the origins of the Organic Food and Production Act of 1990 and sustainable agriculture policy. She was mentioned repeatedly by people I talked to, because as a senate staffer for Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Merrigan had drafted the organic law. She then went on to work at the USDA's agricultural marketing service (AMS), which runs the organic program. Even before then, she was involved in sustainable agriculture policy and has been ever since -- in organics,  conservation, food access, and small farm issues. While Pollan helped put these issues onto the national agenda, people like Merrigan have long been doing the wonky policy work.

Outside government, she has worked for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, served on a the Pew commission on biotechnology and has been active in the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. She now heads the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts School of Nutrition and Policy. As marketing and regulatory undersecretary, she would oversee AMS, GIPSA (Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration), and APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) - touching virtually every aspect of agriculture.

In short, this is a real shot for a major position at the USDA by someone who has pursued the change mantra in agriculture for nearly two decades. The political awareness Pollan has driven about agriculture could well sweep Merrigan into a position at the USDA -- and push a sustainable agenda ahead.

While we're on this topic, the Blog for Rural Affairs has an in-depth look at Tom Vilsack, who WaPo is calling a "near shoo-in" for Ag Secretary. It's well worth a read and not just for his view on organics and biotech.

- Samuel Fromartz

Image: Tufts University