More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don’t recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack’s friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the “best possible” choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O’Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, “to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals.”  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. “Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon.”

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: “Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates.”

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: “Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults.”

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. “Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health.”

Tagtow’s suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa’s fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:

Friends,

[…] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a “Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture” originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro…

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it’s helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs’ proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn’t given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a “Stop Vilsack” petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack’s position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack’s nomination:

I’m glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I’m glad. This way they don’t get their due by ‘vetoing’ a Surgeon General’s warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, “Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?”

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week’s little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we’d have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson’s now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what’s so terribly wrong with our system. There’s one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler’s firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He’s repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over “organic”). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark’s non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he’s also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don’t get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack’s nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

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