CHOW Op-Ed: Foodies Dismayed by Obama

Naomi Starkman is a food policy and media consultant who recently served as the communications and policy director for Slow Food Nation. Here she discusses the growing controversy surrounding Obama’s choice to be the next secretary of agriculture.

Barack Obama’s nomination of Tom Vilsack for head of the USDA has many worrying if it’s going to be agribusiness as usual when the new administration takes office. The former governor of Iowa, the top corn- and soybean-producing state, has backed ethanol and corn subsidies as well as agricultural biotechnology: He was named biotech governor of the year in 2001, and is closely tied to Monsanto. He will oversee one of the largest federal departments with 100,000 employees and a $95 billion annual budget.

“Don’t expect Vilsack, a consummate pragmatist, to turn America’s food system upside down anytime soon,” the Iowa Independent wrote, echoed by the Des Moines Register’s Philip Brasher, who said that Vilsack is “not likely to shift the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a radical new direction as many of Obama’s liberal supporters had hoped.” Vilsack was Obama’s “weakest selection so far,” said New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Foodies had reason to think Obama would lean in their direction. In an interview with Time magazine’s Joe Klein, he said he’d read Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine cover story “about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil.” Momentum built as Pollan, along with Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Wendell Berry, Eric Schlosser, Dan Barber, Marion Nestle, and many others, sent a letter to the transition team with their suggestions for the next secretary of agriculture. The letter inspired a hugely successful petition, swiftly collecting 55,000 signatures, helped in part by the Times’ Kristof, who called on Obama to focus on a “secretary of food.”

Vilsack’s appointment was like a slap in the face, and “sent a chill through the sustainable food and farming community,” said a representative from the Organic Consumers Association. The association has started a new online petition to mobilize opposition to Vilsack.

Some other USDA critics are withholding judgment on Vilsack. Jean Halloran, who follows food policy for Consumers Union, said in the Des Moines Register that Vilsack “obviously comes from a state where conventional farming dominates. But we think it is way too early to make any judgments about how he will deal with food safety and sustainability issues.” As for Pollan, he said in an NPR interview, that he saw “reasons to be cautiously hopeful,” noting that Vilsack suggested capping subsidies and using the money saved for conservation efforts.