We try not to focus on food policy and politics too much on this site (there are others that are better qualified to do that), but as observers of the organic food community, it's difficult to ignore some of the policy decisions that are made in Washington. That said, today is the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and to mark the occasion, we'd like to take a look back at some of the food policy developments -- good and bad -- from his first year in office.
Sustainable foodies were high on hope when Obama won the 2008 election, and quotes like this one from the campaign fueled the optimism:
"I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs."
But the excitement quickly faded as the newly-minted prez started assembling his staff. Food activists groaned when Obama tapped former Iowa gov Tom Vilsack as USDA secretary. Vilsack had developed a reputation for defending biotechnology and ethanol, and the Organic Consumers Association even dubbed him a "shill for Monsanto." Even though Vilsack has reaffirmed his love for GMOs and biofuels, I actually think he's taken some very positive steps towards turning USDA around since his appointment.
After Vilsack came the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as the USDA deputy secretary, and the selection was unanimously cheered by sustainable food advocates. Merrigan came to USDA with an excellent track record of work on sustainable agriculture, having helped to write the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 that mandated national organic standards, and she later helped guide the organic labeling program at USDA. The nomination came as a direct result of a Food Democracy Now petition that gathered more than 87,000 signatures urging the Obama administration to promote sustainable agriculture.
One of the first good signs came on Earth Day 2009, when USDA converted a six-acre tract on the National Mall into an organic "People's Garden." It didn't get as much press as Michelle Obama's White House garden, but the symbolism was equally important. In July, Vilsack embarked on a rural tour, showing that he is at least in touch with farmers, and not just Big Agribusiness. In August, USDA ordered an audit of the National Organic Program, which will seek to "bring the program up to international standards," according to the Washington Post. And in September, Vilsack and Merrigan launched "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," a $65 million program to "begin a national conversation to help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity."
Most recently, Vilsack traveled to Copenhagen to speak about the role of agriculture in global climate change. As people like Tim LaSalle from the Rodale Institute have pointed out, organic farming has the ability to mitigate climate change by sequestering climate in the soil. But instead of focusing on that, Vilsack again pointed to biofuels, GMOs, and no-till farming (which is dependent on RoundUp technology.) Paula Crossfield gives a great point-by point debunking here.
So we're right back where we started, right? Not exactly. Vilsack's remarks at Copenhagen were a good wake-up call to anyone who thought that USDA had been converted into a organic farming advocacy group. President Obama refuses to openly endorse organics, even though many of us suspect, because of comments he made before taking office, that he favors sustainable food and farming. We've made some big strides this year, but organics still only represent less than 3 percent of food sold in the US, and the cold reality is that the federal government represents all Americans -- not just 3 percent of us. The Obama administration has done some good work this year, but there's plenty of work to be done to forward the cause of organic food.