Hired Gun for Big Ag Endorses Francis Thicke's Opponent

(Disappointing but not surprising. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Yesterday the Iowa Agriculture Secretary, Republican Bill Northey, got an endorsement from a Democrat in his effort to get rehired by Iowans.  Jerry Crawford is not just any Democrat.  He is a close friend of Hillary Clinton, and Tom Vilsack, and has donated thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns.  So what is he doing on WHO TV talking about Bill Northey, instead of the Democratic candidate, Francis Thicke?
If blood is thicker than water, money in politics is thicker than that.  When it comes to agricultural issues in Iowa, politics is a blood sport, played for keeps.  If you think this is inside Iowa baseball, you should know that Iowa agriculture is the engine that brings GMO foods to your table, that is killing the Gulf of Mexico, and that can send contaminated eggs across the country and as far away as Guam.
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Michael Pollan: "The Most Important Election This Year"

(Thicke has also been endorsed by 350.org founder Bill McKibben and best-selling author Jim Hightower. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

That assessment of Francis Thicke’s incredible grassroots campaign for Iowa Agriculture Secretary came from food writer Michael Pollan via Twitter. Another assessment, via a pollster, is that it’s winnable, but more about that below.  

For people who care about what they eat and how much they pay for it, Pollan’s tweet is not hyperbole.  It is a tribute to an organic dairy farmer with no prior political experience who has put together a professional statewide campaign, and is now within three percentage points of a well-financed Republican.  Francis Thicke (pronounced Tickee) does have experience in government.  He worked for the USDA after getting his PhD in Agronomy, and he has been advocating policies like reducing the concentration of market power in agriculture for years.  But with this campaign, he is trying to get his hands on the government machinery and change what it does.
(con't)

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Weekend open thread: Food and farm policy edition

Share anything that’s on your mind this weekend in the comments below.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly hosted a workshop in Ankeny devoted to concentration in agriculture, antitrust issues and market practices. After some controversy over the speakers scheduled initially, more farmers and producers were able to speak during the workshop. Lynda Waddington covered a panel including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Des Moines Register covered a session concerning Monsanto’s dominance in the biotech seed industry:

Monsanto has generated controversy because of its leading role in the biotech revolution in corn, soybean and cotton seeds since the mid-1990s. About 90 percent of the corn and soybean fields in the Midwest now are planted with seeds genetically altered to resist herbicides and pests.

“Biotech seeds have given farmers better yields and improved their lives,” said farmer Pam Johnson of Floyd County.

Monsanto, Pioneer and other seed companies license their traits under the auspices of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing life forms to be patented.

Iowa State University professor emeritus Neil Harl said that Supreme Court decision radically changed the seed business from a collaborative, collegial enterprise among land grant colleges, farmers and companies.

“Before 1980, seed germplasm was considered something in the public domain,” said Harl. “Seed was developed in the field and everybody shared. Now seeds are developed in the laboratory and are patented and licensed.”

Holder said the high court decision 30 years ago wouldn’t block antitrust action, if it was deemed necessary.

“The antitrust authority is there,” Holder said. “The question is what the patent holders are doing with their patents. If they are using it to preserve monopolies, that is unfair behavior.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey noted that farmers are spending twice as much on seed as they did a decade ago, but also are getting better yields.

“There is tension about the cost of inputs,” Northey said. “But we don’t want to lose the innovation.”

The food blog Cooking Up a Story published this short backgrounder on “Hybrids and the Emergence of Seed Monopolies.”

The night before the DOJ/USDA workshop, Iowa CCI, Food and Water Watch, the National Family Farms Coalition and Food Democracy Now organized a town-hall meeting to raise awareness of excessive levels of concentration in agriculture. Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent.

Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture Francis Thicke has long been concerned about the loss of competition in agricultural markets. He attended the workshop in Ankeny and praised the DOJ and USDA for investigating antitrust issues related to agriculture:

“Antitrust enforcement by the federal government has been ignored for so long that it will take Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to bring competitive markets back to agriculture,” said Thicke, who plans to participate in the first of a series of five workshops planned by the two federal departments this Friday in Ankeny. […]

“The effects of excessive market power by a few firms has been studied for years,” said Thicke. “It has been shown that if four or fewer firms control 40% or more of a market, then it no longer functions as a competitive market.” He pointed out that, as of 2007, four firms controlled 85% of the beef packing market, four firms controlled 66% of the pork packing market, four firms controlled 59% of the broiler market, and four firms controlled 55% of the turkey market.

“Clearly we are beyond the point of open competition in our agricultural markets,” Thicke asserted. “When there are so few large firms in a market, controlling firms begin to act in concert whether or not they are directly communicating pricing with each other.”

Speaking of food policy, I heard some good news this week. The Iowa Center on Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa has received major grants for two important projects:

The focus of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant is to launch an Iowa Food Policy Council, a diverse statewide cooperative to develop and make research, program and policy recommendations for a food system to support healthier Iowans, communities, economies and environments. Over the next year, the Iowa Food Policy Council will conduct a comprehensive statewide assessment of food systems, food access and health indicators.

The focus of the Leopold Center grant is to convene key food security and public health stakeholders from across Iowa who will examine the disparities in food access and health among Iowans. The Food Access and Health Working Group will address programs and policies that increase access to fresh, nutritious and affordable local food for all Iowans, including vulnerable children and their families.

More details on the grants are after the jump. I was hoping Governor Culver would revive the Food Policy Council, but I’m glad another way was found to get this project going.

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Is Obama putting a Monsanto exec in charge of food safety?

(UPDATE: Jill Richardson’s sources differ on whether these appointments are imminent.)

I received a disturbing action alert today from Food Democracy Now about who may oversee food safety regulations in the new administration. (Note: I got the action alert via e-mail, and it hasn’t been posted yet at the Food Democracy Now website. The link above is to the organization’s main page.)

Excerpt:

There’s a possibility that former Monsanto executive Michael Taylor and irradiation proponent Dr. Michael Osterholm will be named to top food safety spots in the new Administration. […]

1. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, whose career literally fits the definition of the revolving door between government, lobbying and corporate interests. Before serving on the Obama ag transition team, Taylor made a name for himself rotating in and out of law firms, Monsanto, the USDA and FDA. While at the FDA he helped write the rules to allow rBGH into the American food system and our children’s milk.

Now we’ve learned that Taylor may be in line to run an office in the White House on food safety!

2.  On Monday, Secretary Vilsack is set to announce the appointment of Dr. Michael Osterholm, a food safety expert, to lead the Food Safety agency at the USDA. According to Food  & Water Watch, Osterholm has been “a zealot in promoting th[e] controversial technology (of irradiation) as the panacea to contaminated food.”

Irradiation allows food processors to nuke disease from contaminated food at the end of the production line, while ignoring the root problems that create unsafe food.

For Osterholm, the recent peanut butter fiasco apparently was just another example of how irradiation could save the day. “Clearly it’s a problem where the raw peanut butter or paste is consumed and not cooked,” Osterholm said.

Food Democracy Now wants people to e-mail Vilsack immediately, asking him to block these appointments. The action alert included a sample e-mail, which I’ve posted after the jump, but it’s always better to write this kind of letter in your own words.

You may recall that in November, the Organic Consumers Association came out strongly against Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, largely because of his connections to Monsanto and other biotech companies. But it’s worth noting that President Obama put Michael Taylor on his transition team before he chose Vilsack to run the USDA. If Taylor does end up running a White House food safety office, don’t pin that mistake on Vilsack.  

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Department of odd omissions

I wasn’t surprised in November when the Des Moines Register failed to report on opposition to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s possible appointment as secretary of agriculture.

I wasn’t surprised in December when the newspaper omitted the same perspective from its piece on reaction to the news that President-elect Barack Obama was picking Vilsack for the job.

But I find this January 12 Des Moines Register article by Chase Davis quite odd. The subject is how Vilsack has relatively few ties to agribusiness. Excerpt:

Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack raised only a small portion of his campaign cash from farmers, grocers and others with direct ties to the agriculture industry, despite serving eight years as governor in one of the country’s most emblematic farming states, documents and fundraising data show.

From his first run for governor in 1998 to his short-lived presidential bid in 2006, Vilsack raised almost $15.8 million through contributions to his campaign and political action committees. Only about 2.3 percent, or $364,000, came directly from interests connected to agriculture.

Political observers said the small share of industry donations Vilsack received could earn him credibility and a perception of independence as he prepares for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. Others note the agricultural industry has long exerted its political influence through connections, not money.

“(Agriculture businesses) are much more human than a lot of other businesses. They have a very tight network,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Money is maybe not the prime indicator there.”

To the extent that influence follows money, Vilsack can make a convincing case that he is not beholden to the agribusiness industry – which could serve him well in the position, local experts said.

Agribusiness “will have more trouble getting everything they want, and they know it,” said Arthur Sanders, chairman of the Politics and International Relations Department at Drake University.

But if companies do convince Vilsack to support their policies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack “will have more credibility if he pushes for them,” Sanders said.

The article baffles me on two levels. It ranks Vilsack’s “top political donors associated with agribusiness interests,” and number one on the list is the philanthropist Doris Jean Newlin, whose husband was a vice president of Pioneer Hi-Bred International before he retired.

Newlin has made significant gifts to quite a few Democratic politicians, the Iowa Democratic Party, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It’s a stretch to consider her donations to Vilsack’s campaigns the most noteworthy link between Vilsack and agribusiness, just because Newlin is married to a retired vice-president of Pioneer.

What makes the article even more strange is that it does not mention biotech companies. Vilsack was an outspoken and persistent advocate for growing more genetically-engineered crops in Iowa and elsewhere. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him governor of the year in 2001. He even used to fly on the Monsanto corporate jet. What opposition there was to Vilsack’s appointment as secretary of agriculture stemmed primarily from his many ties to biotechnology companies like Monsanto.  

Vilsack may well have fewer connections to agribusiness than others who have headed the USDA. I think the Senate should confirm him, given that he is the president’s choice, and he is certainly qualified for the job.

But it was quite a strange editorial decision by the Register to publish a whole article about Vilsack not having strong ties to corporate agriculture, while failing to mention any of his connections to the biotechnology industry. If you’re going to report a story, at least report the whole story.

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Organic Consumers Association against Vilsack for Ag Secretary

The Organic Consumers Association doesn’t hold back in this piece: Six Reasons Why Obama Appointing Monsanto’s Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, for USDA Head is a Terrible Idea.

Click through to read the whole case against Vilsack. Among other things, they don’t like his advocacy of genetically-engineered crops for food or pharmaceuticals, his tendency to travel in Monsanto’s jet, and his support of biofuels.

I can’t recall anything Vilsack did as governor to address pollution from conventional farming or to promote sustainable agriculture. Then again, I was out of the state for most of his first term. If anyone wants to make the case for Vilsack as ag secretary in the comments, have at it.

I would much rather see Vilsack in a different post, such as secretary of education. He is very smart, understands policy and works hard, so he would be an asset to the cabinet–just not as agriculture secretary, in my opinion.

On a related note, if you care about food policy and sustainable agriculture, you should bookmark the community blog La Vida Locavore, featuring Jill Richardson (known to Daily Kos readers as OrangeClouds115) and Asinus Asinum Fricat, among others.

Jill’s recent posts indicate that Obama will likely improve food safety and may move us in the right direction in several other agricultural policy areas.

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