# Food System

Farm Bill failure and the Washington bubble

Barb Kalbach: “Congress panders to corporate ag at the expense of family farms, rural communities, and our food supply.” -promoted by Laura Belin

“This is an evolutionary, not revolutionary Farm Bill,” is the refrain from the Congressional crafters of the recently passed legislation. But this out-of-touch bill locks in a factory farm system that for decades has pushed independent family farmers off their land and left rural residents and our environment worse off.

As our democracy in Washington fails us, important fights at the local and state level are taking on corporate agriculture interests and building a new future for family farmers and rural communities.

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Hunger in the heartland: Iowans struggle with food insecurity

Jessica Chrystal shines a light on a widespread problem in a state that is supposed to be the bread basket of the world. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I spent part of last week attending events at the World Food Prize in Des Moines. When we think of hunger, we think of homeless people on benches in California. The Salvation Army bell ringer standing outside of Target during Christmas, or the glowing images from our tvs of starving children to donate to various charities overseas.

Rarely do we think of our neighbor next door.

Hunger is everywhere. She’s part of the fabric of every map dot town and big city across Iowa.

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Keeping all our options open: A vision for a "new century farm" in Johnson County

Thanks to Kurt Friese for this perspective on a controversy that brings together concerns over land use, local foods, and affordable housing. Fellow Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan explained his vote on the proposal here. -promoted by desmoinesdem

It what might be called the most contentious vote of my time so far on the Board of Supervisors, on June 23 we chose one of three potential concepts for “phase 2” of the planning for the historic Johnson County Poor Farm. The concept, titled “New Century Farm,” is the most ambitious of the three, and is the only one of the three that keeps all our options open.

What it does not do is sell off public land to private developers, nor “pave the poor farm,” nor create urban sprawl. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a little background.

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Throwback Thursday: The road not taken on Iowa's "Ag Gag" law

A U.S. District Court ruling in August inspired today’s edition of Throwback Thursday. That ruling struck down an Idaho law making it a crime to lie to obtain employment at an agricultural facility, among other things. Iowa was the first state to adopt what critics call an “ag gag” law, aimed at making it harder for animal rights or food safety activists to obtain undercover recordings at farms or slaughterhouses. Idaho’s law went further than the bill Governor Terry Branstad signed in 2012; for instance, the Idaho statute also banned unauthorized audio or video recordings at a livestock farm or processing facility. Still, to this non-lawyer, some passages of federal Judge Lyn Winmill’s ruling (pdf) suggested that Iowa’s prohibition on “agricultural production facility fraud” might also violate the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment’s free speech clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Bleeding Heartland posted relevant excerpts from the Idaho ruling here, along with a brief legislative history of House File 589.

I sought Governor Terry Branstad’s comment on the court ruling and whether Iowa lawmakers should amend or rescind the language in Iowa Code about “agricultural production facility fraud.” In response, the governor’s communications director Jimmy Centers provided this statement on August 6:

House File 589 passed with bipartisan support and under the advice and counsel of the Attorney General’s office. The governor has not had the opportunity to review the ruling from the federal court in Idaho and, as such, does not have a comment on the case.

“Under the advice and counsel of the Attorney General’s office” didn’t sound right to me. When I looked further into the story, I learned that the Iowa Attorney General’s office neither recommended passage of this law nor signed off on its contents.

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All Iowans in House vote to block any mandatory labeling of GMOs in food

Late last week the U.S. House approved a bill to make it harder for consumers to find out whether food products contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Although national polls have repeatedly shown that more than 90 percent of Americans believe foods with GMOs should be labeled, all four Iowans in the U.S. House voted for the misleadingly named “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015.” Opponents nicknamed the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act” or the “Monsanto Protection Act.”

Follow me after the jump for details on the bill’s provisions, how the Iowans voted on amendments House Democrats offered during the floor debate, and a list of Iowa organizations and business that urged members of Congress either to support or reject this bill.  

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Iowa Income: Who Gets What?

(Thanks to daveswen for this post. Facts don't support widespread beliefs about Iowans allegedly being too dependent on federal programs. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Depending on where you live in Iowa and who you interact with, you may have some quirky conclusions about how income gets made.  It’s common and correct to conclude that many folks get along with the help of public assistance: many in fact wouldn’t get along at all without public aid.  But most of us don’t have a clue how money gets made in this state, let alone who the recipients of public assistance are.  We go to annual estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to get the numbers.

Here's how $138.34 billion in 2013 total personal income was divided up: Two-thirds ($91.3 billion) came from total earnings, which are wages and salaries, payments to proprietors, and the value of all employer-supplied benefits like medical insurance and retirement contributions.  Investment incomes (dividends, interests, and rents) made up 18 percent ($24.7 billion).  And transfers – payments by the federal government or, to a lesser extent, state government to individuals either in cash, vouchers, or direct assistance – were 16 percent of state income. 

Stated differently, 84 percent of our incomes came from market activity, and 16 percent came from governmental tranfers.  Market incomes trumped government payments to individuals by a ratio of better than 5 to 1.  

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Lawsuit fails to block California egg production law, with Iowa reaction (updated)

Catching up on news from last week, on October 2 U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller threw out a lawsuit brought by six states, including Iowa, seeking to block California’s law on egg production standards. Governor Terry Branstad joined that lawsuit in March, after Representative Steve King failed to use the federal Farm Bill as a vehicle for overturning the California law.

Bleeding Heartland covered the plaintiffs’ case against the egg production standards here. I predicted the lawsuit would fail because “1) the law does not ‘discriminate’; 2) the law does not force any conduct on egg producers outside the state of California; and 3) overturning this law would prompt a wave of lawsuits seeking to invalidate any state regulation designed to set higher standards for safety, public health, or consumer protection.”

In fact, the case never got to the point of the judge considering those legal arguments. If I were an attorney, I might have foreseen the reason Judge Mueller dismissed the lawsuit: lack of standing. You can download the 25-page ruling here (document number 102) and read pages 15 to 23 to understand her full reasoning. Daniel Enoch summarized it well for AgriPulse:

“Plaintiffs’ arguments focus on the potential harm each state’s egg farmers face,” Mueller wrote in her 25-page decision. “The alleged imminent injury, however, does not involve an injury the citizens of each state face but rather a potential injury each state’s egg farmers face when deciding whether or not to comply with AB 1437.” In other words, they failed to show that the law does real harm to citizens, instead of possible future harm to some egg producers.

“It is patently clear plaintiffs are bringing this action on behalf of a subset of each state’s egg farmers,” Mueller wrote, “not on behalf of each state’s population generally.”

Mueller dismissed the case “with prejudice,” meaning plaintiffs cannot amend their claim and re-file. Plaintiffs including Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller are considering their legal options. While they could appeal the dismissal, I doubt they would prevail in a U.S. Appeals Court.

The Des Moines Register’s write-up by Matthew Patane and Donelle Eller highlighted the alleged harm California’s law will do to Iowa agriculture when it goes into effect on January 1. I’ve posted excerpts after the jump. I was disappointed that the Register’s reporters led with the spin from “Iowa agricultural leaders” and buried in the middle of the piece a short passage explaining why the lawsuit failed (states can’t serve as a legal proxy for a small interest group). Patane and Eller did not mention that if courts accept the reasoning of egg law opponents, a possible outcome would be invalidating any state law or regulation designed to set higher standards for safety, public health, or consumer protection.

Comments provided to the Register by Governor Branstad, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and others reinforce Judge Mueller’s determination that the lawsuit was designed to protect a group of agricultural producers rather than citizens as a whole. A lot of Iowa Democrats bought into the poultry producers’ industry constitutional arguments as well.

UPDATE: Added below Branstad’s latest comments. He is either confused about the ruling or determined not to acknowledge the real legal issue.

SECOND UPDATE: Added comments from Representative Steve King and Sherrie Taha, the Democratic nominee for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

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Latest farm bill news and Iowa political reaction (updated)

Today members of the U.S. House and Senate began conference committee negotiations on the farm bill. The last five-year farm bill expired in 2012, and the latest extension of most federal farm programs (except for some related to conservation and sustainable agriculture) lapsed on September 30. Two Iowans are on the 41-member conference committee: Democratic Senator Tom Harkin and Republican Representative Steve King (IA-04).

One issue is likely to dominate the Congressional talks: funding levels for nutrition programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. This summer, both Harkin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley voted for the Senate farm bill, which cut SNAP by about $4 billion over 10 years. Iowa’s four U.S. House members split along party lines when the House approved a Republican bill with $39 billion in cuts over the same time frame. Keep in mind that regardless of what happens in the farm bill talks, all SNAP recipients–including an estimated 1 million veterans and approximately 421,000 Iowans–will see their food assistance reduced as of November 1. Click here for a detailed report on those cuts, which will occur as extra funding from the 2009 federal stimulus bill runs out.

After the jump I’ve posted the latest comments about the farm bill from Iowa politicians.

UPDATE: Added King’s opening statement from the conference committee meeting below.

SECOND UPDATE: Added new comments from Harkin.

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More details on the farm bill extension Congress just approved

The U.S. Senate and the House Agriculture Committee approved versions of a new five-year farm bill last summer, but discontent within the House Republican caucus kept Speaker John Boehner from bringing the bill up for a vote in the full chamber. Iowa Republican Tom Latham signed a discharge petition seeking to force a vote, while Steve King promised to work toward passing the bill during the lame-duck session.  But Boehner never put the five-year farm bill on the House calendar.

With time running out before U.S. law reverted to the 1949 bill provisions, House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders agreed last week to push for a one-year extension of farm programs. But that bill never came up for a vote either. Instead, negotiators added a nine-month partial extension of farm programs to the “fiscal cliff” tax agreement. Since Tuesday I’ve been looking into the details of what Congress approved on farm policy. It’s not pretty.

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Iowa farms NEED another four years of Obama

(A view of the election from small farmers who sell what they produce locally. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Here is something we sent out to our friends and family on October 23.

Greetings friends of the food movement and local & regional agriculture,

We write tonight to invite you to join us in supporting President Obama’s reelection.  We can think of a lot of reasons to support this administration.  However, there is no better reason than to acknowledge the support through Secretary Vilsack that President Obama has provided to the food and agriculture community in general and specifically to those of us championing local, regional, and good food.  Below are some reasons why we need to keep Obama in the White House and his policies for food and agriculture in place at USDA.  If you are like us, you haven’t been in love with every single food and agriculture decision from this administration, but the good stuff will all go away if Obama loses this election and historically speaking there’s a bunch of good stuff.  [continues below]

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Childhood hunger, poverty growing in Iowa

Although Iowa’s unemployment rate is below the national average, and state government closed out the 2012 fiscal year with a record surplus, a growing number of Iowa children live in poverty and are hungry or malnourished at least some of the time. The Des Moines Register recently launched a series of reports on “unprecedented challenges for Iowa kids.” Follow me after the jump for some depressing highlights.

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Weekend open thread: Labor Day edition (updated)

Hope the Bleeding Heartland community has been enjoying the long holiday weekend. This is an open thread. I’ve enclosed some Labor Day-related links after the jump, including an excerpt from the Iowa Policy Project’s recent report on wage theft, which “deprives low-wage Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, deprives state and local government of revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage.”

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Iowa political reaction to BPI plant closures

Beef Products, Inc. announced yesterday that it will permanently close three factories in Waterloo, Iowa, Amarillo, Texas and Garden City, Kansas. BPI suspended operations at those plants in March, following public controversy over lean finely textured beef, which detractors call “pink slime.” The Waterloo facility employed 200 people, who will be jobless effective May 25.

Comments from Governor Terry Branstad, Senator Chuck Grassley, and Representative Bruce Braley are after the jump. Branstad and Grassley criticized what they have called a “smear campaign” against lean finely textured beef. Braley, who previously called for a Congressional investigation into media claims about the product, expressed regret that “the facts have been lost in the furor” over lean finely textured beef.

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King, Latham and Boswell again urge USDA to defend "pink slime"

Representatives Steve King (R, IA-05), Tom Latham (R, IA-04), and Leonard Boswell (D, IA-03) want to know what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done “to correct the public record and educate consumers about the safety” of lean, finely textured beef. It’s not the first time those politicians have decried the so-called “misinformation” campaign against what critics call “pink slime.” Bleeding Heartland has previously covered this controversy here, here, and here.

After the jump I’ve posted a press release from King’s office and the full text of yesterday’s letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, signed by 29 U.S. House members. The letter and press release suggest that Vilsack has an obligation to help repair the image of Beef Products Inc. That company recently suspended operations at three of its four facilities that produce lean, finely textured beef. King is also seeking a Congressional inquiry into the “smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country” and has said he is “focused on helping BPI get their brand back and their market share back.”

UPDATE: On April 20, Representative Bruce Braley (D, IA-01) called for a Congressional investigation into “recent claims made in the media about lean, finely textured beef,” including people “on all sides of the issue.” More details are at the end of this post.

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175 Chickens in 1 Minute?!

(Click here for background on this policy change. A lot of poultry inspectors don't like the idea. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

You’d think the USDA would see the flaw of logic in letting the people who make the food inspect the food and decide if it is actually safe to eat.

The USDA has decided in its infinite wisdom, despite pink slime and a few other debacles of the food industry, to test a program allowing chicken companies to check their own livestock and decide whether or not the chickens are safe to eat.

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Lean finely textured beef/"pink slime" linkfest

Competing rallies about lean finely textured beef took place on the Iowa State University campus yesterday. Governor Terry Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, and Representative Steve King were among the speakers at a rally supporting continued use of the additive used in some ground beef. Before that event, some family farmers joined activists at a rally to “to protest the collusion between industrial meat production and our political system.”

It’s time for a new Bleeding Heartland thread about lean finely textured beef, known to detractors as “pink slime.” A dozen links to news and commentary about this controversy are after the jump.

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Branstad seeks Congressional investigation of beef controversy

Governor Terry Branstad doubled down today in support of lean finely textured beef. Not only is he urging schools to keep using the product, he wants Congress to investigate the “smear campaign” by critics of so-called “pink slime.”

Follow me after the jump for the governor’s latest comments and Senator Chuck Grassley’s more measured defense of lean finely textured beef.

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Iowa politicians mobilize to defend "pink slime"

Iowa politicians from both parties are speaking out today in defense of finely textured beef product, now commonly known as “pink slime.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced earlier this month that it will give schools the option of buying ground beef that does not contain the product. Several grocery store chains have recently announced that they will stop carrying ground beef containing the product, prompting Beef Products Inc. to suspend production of finely textured beef product at three plants for 60 days. One of the closed plants is in Waterloo. BPI is leaving its plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska running for now.

Iowa political reaction to the controversy is after the jump.

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More understanding, less mystery: milkers get it

Iowa may soon have as many milking coaches as lactation consultants.   After a lapse of about four decades, human breastfeeding has secured its place once again in our culture as the premiere way to nourish an infant.  In a parallel narrative, fresh wholesome milk from cows, sheep, and goats is regaining its reputation as a premiere health food.   To boost that growing reputation, milking coaches are pulling up another milking stool to help people learn more about the realities of milk fresh from the udder.  
“We've only used manmade milk (formula and pasteurized milk) for around 60 to 70 years but we've used breast milk and raw milk for 6000 years.   If it wasn't for breast milk and raw milk, we wouldn't be here!” says Brad Hopp, a milking coach near Lawton in northwestern Iowa .   “Learning more about milking helps people understand it better, and I'm all for that.”
Although mothers' milk retains some of its mystery in the face of scientific inquiry, mothers these days know how precious it is to their babies' health and growth.   A little mystery in the food supply passes when it's balanced by strong instincts and a solid record of success.   But mystery can feel uncomfortable when it strays too far from knowledge and experience.
“The idea of raw milk feels exotic and mysterious to many people in Iowa ,” says Christy Ann Welty, homeschooling mother of two who helps milking coaches and new milkers find each other.   “More understanding and less fear will help everyone as they make decisions about the best ways to feed their families.”  
More understanding and less mystery: that's the meaning of “Milkers get it.”
A second meaning of the phrase relates to Iowa state law.  
Drinking wholesome, fresh milk — fresh from a healthy, grass-fed cow, sheep, or goat without processing through a pasteurization vat — has been illegal since 1968 for most people living in Iowa .   The privilege of choosing whether to drink milk fresh or pasteurized is reserved to the few who control livestock, land, and have mastered the skill of milking; everyone else is restricted to only Grade A pasteurized milk, except for those who are willing to operate in the gray areas of the law.   “Giving away milk is not covered by our rules,” says Dustin VandeHoef, communications director for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), “but all sales are illegal.”
Passages from Chapter 192 of the Iowa Code (state law) say, “Only grade 'A' pasteurized milk and milk products shall be sold to the final consumer, or to restaurants, soda fountains, grocery stores, or similar establishments;” and later, “No person shall within the state produce, provide, sell, offer, or expose for sale, or have in possession with intent to sell, any milk or milk product which is adulterated or misbranded;”  
VandeHoef says, “We interpret the words 'adulterated' and 'misbranded' to include raw milk, and this is also the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] interpretation which is adopted into the Code.”
The IDALS interprets “sales” to mean “exchanges of value.”   During a phone call to his office, VanderHoef was reluctant to specify which circumstances would be considered prosecutable and which would be outside IDALS's rules.  
A broad interpretation of the meaning of “sales” puts giving away raw milk, and even drinking raw milk from one's own animal, into the gray area between legal and illegal: renting a stall in a farmer's barn to shelter your cow if you do not have a barn; bringing a sandwich to the person milking your goat for you; bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party where the hostess serves raw milk.   Membership in a private kitchen club could be interpreted as a “sale” if one of the members gives away samples of raw milk.  
To steer clear of potential gray market entanglement, all milking lessons from “milkers get it” coaches are free, and no donations are accepted.   “We're not trying to get around the law,” says Welty.   “Our purpose is to pass along a valuable skill to people who want to be self-sufficient or live a sustainable lifestyle or simply exercise choice about the food they eat.”

In order to exercise the simple choice of “Fresh or Pasteurized” without engaging black markets or gray markets, a person has to learn how to milk and has to control livestock plus enough land to support it.   One mission of “Milkers get it” is to help people overcome barriers that state law and bureaucracy have erected.   Another mission is to assist efforts to change the state law.
Challenging the statute with a court case is lengthy and expensive.   One current lawsuit disputes one circumstance in the gray area of the law: Freitag v Secretary of Agriculture was filed in January 2010 and litigation continues in Linn County 's district court.   Representing two milkers who boarded their cow with a Linn County farmer, the Farmer-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund “is acting in the capacity of a public interest law firm to protect the fundamental rights of the public at large ….”
Changing the statute directly with new legislation is another option.   Small-scale dairy farmers, health food customers, legislators, and many others worked together during Iowa 's 2011 legislative session to lift restrictions against consumers buying raw milk directly from farmers.   “We made progress,” says Francis Thicke, organic dairy operator and former candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, “but not enough to pass it this year.   We'll try again next year.”
Meanwhile, you can pull up a three-legged stool and try a free milking lesson for yourself, and encourage your state legislators to get some hands-on experience, too.   Accurate information and authentic experience are often the best tools for changing engrained habits of mind and for updating rules and procedures.   Milking coaches are ready to introduce all comers to the wholesome experience of squirting fresh milk from the udder of a healthy animal into a warm, foamy pail of milk.   When you feel the rush from a satisfying squeeze, you'll understand.   Milkers get it.

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Philip Brasher has a new food policy blog

Philip Brasher, the agriculture and food policy reporter recently laid off by the Des Moines Register, launched the FoodWatch blog yesterday to cover “the politics of what we eat, how it’s produced, and why that matters.” His first two posts were about a Senate deal to replace current ethanol subsidies with different biofuels incentives and a “landmark deal” on improving conditions for caged hens, announced by the industry group United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal welfare organization.

Many sustainable food advocates were alarmed when the Des Moines Register let Brasher go and closed its Washington bureau. The FoodWatch blog doesn’t have the Register’s high profile, but at least it keeps Brasher’s reporting accessible to the public for now.

Register publisher Laura Hollingsworth assured Paula Crossfield of the Civil Eats blog that the newspaper’s remaining staff and the Gannett Corporation would be able to “provide comprehensive political and agricultural coverage for our readers in Des Moines and beyond.” What passes for a business section in today’s Des Moines Register includes a Gannett Washington bureau report on the Senate ethanol deal and an Associated Press story about the egg industry’s agreement with the Humane Society. The AP report lacks some of the details and context Brasher provides on his blog.

LATE UPDATE: Brasher rejoined Gannett in late August 2011; his articles about food and agriculture appear in several newspapers, including the Des Moines Register.

Des Moines Register downsizing worries sustainable food advocates

Advocates for more sustainable food and agriculture policies are alarmed by cutbacks Des Moines Register management announced last week. Closing the newspaper’s Washington bureau and laying off agriculture correspondent Philip Brasher will leave the public less informed about decision-making in the capital, with implications far beyond the Register’s circulation area in Iowa.

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More speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Iowa politicians from both parties, as well as representatives of influential ag lobbies, like the idea of former Governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to this piece from the Des Moines Register:

The ag secretary, whose department oversees such organizations as United States Forest Service, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service and the food stamp program, must have a strong relationship with the industry, be a strong manager, and be politically in tune with the president.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack has those qualities, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (a Republican) likes the idea of Barack Obama picking someone from Iowa who understands the biofuels industry. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley tells the Register that it always benefits Iowa to have someone from our state is a position of power.

The heads of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association also have good things to say about Vilsack’s knowledge and background in the article.

Although this was ostensibly a news piece and not an opinion column, the Register made its preference clear by not quoting any critic of Vilsack’s record on agriculture and not mentioning any reason why anyone might oppose him for this job.

Vilsack’s strong ties to the biotech and biofuels industries prompted the Organic Consumers Association to come out against his appointment as head of the USDA. When I wrote about that on Thursday, a few people questioned whether anyone else on Obama’s short list for this job would be better than Vilsack in terms of supporting organic foods and sustainable agriculture.

It’s a fair question. Here Jill Richardson/OrangeClouds115 makes the case against House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. She shows that Obama’s campaign platform includes a lot of good points on agriculture, most of which Peterson has used his position in Congress to block.

Yesterday, shirah argued here that Pennsylvania Secretary of Agricultre Dennis Wolff, another name on Obama’s short list, would be “about the worst person” for this job. The diarist has written extensively about “Wolff’s role in trying to take away the right of Pennsylvanians to know whether their milk was produced using rBST / rBGH (recombinant bovine somatrophin / recombinant bovine growth hormone).”

Looks like Obama’s agriculture policy is going to be “more of the same” rather than “change we can believe in.”

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