WASHINGTON, DC: As former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack begins his confirmation hearings in Congress, a controversy is brewing in the organic food and farming industry concerning his appointment.
For the last eight years, Bush administration officials at the USDA have been widely criticized for “monkeywrenching” the National Organic Program. They have been accused of not enforcing the law and, among other improprieties, allowing giant factory farms to produce organic milk, meat, and eggs.
Understandably, the industry viewed Barack Obama’s election as a likely turning point. “We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about ‘change’ during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
Over 130,000 petition signatures have been collected by two advocacy groups, urging the Obama transition team to appoint a USDA secretary who would embody that change. When Obama tapped former Governor Tom Vilsack, an Iowa lawyer with strong past backing for genetic engineering and a close relationship with corporate agribusiness interests, some organic proponents expressed their opposition.
The Organic Consumers Association, the largest group of its nature, is now in the midst of a pressure campaign, backed by 40,000 signatures, calling on Congress to reject the Vilsack nomination.
The success of the Organic Consumer Association’s outreach prompted a group of the organic industry’s corporate CEOs to launch their own counter petition drive in support of the Obama nominee.
Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., the nation’s near-monopoly organic and natural foods distributor, have signed on in support of Mr. Vilsack. Their petition, totaling about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents who personally worked with Mr. Vilsack when he was governor.
“We hate to see what appears to be the grassroots lining up in opposition of this nominee and corporate investors breaking with their most dedicated customers. This split is not healthy for the organic community,” Kastel added.
Although The Cornucopia Institute is not endorsing either petition drive, they have not given up hope that the election of Barack Obama will usher in material changes at the USDA’s National Organic Program.
“Mr. Obama has made it clear that he will be the CEO of the new executive branch management team,” Kastel added. We fully expect, whether or not Mr. Vilsack is confirmed, which appears likely, that the White House will reinstate transparency and a sense of dedication to serving the public at what Lincoln called the ‘People’s Department.’”
President-Elect Obama, and his family, will be the first residents of the White House with a history of eating, and support for, organic food.
In a candid communiqué to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia Institute described the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) as “dysfunctional” and experiencing a “crisis in confidence” and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.
Their letter described the NOP’s long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. It said, based on information gathered from freedom of information documents: “Senior management, with oversight of the NOP, has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to corporations with interests in the organic industry.”
“We would strongly recommend, as many public corporations do when trying to regain shareholder and Wall Street confidence, that the Department bring in a highly respected and skilled individual from the outside to run this program,” added Kastel.
Cornucopia has backed a widely circulated list of progressive agricultural policy experts as potential sub-Cabinet level appointees including Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., a food policy professor at Tufts University as well as a former top USDA administrator, and James Riddle, currently with the University of Minnesota, who is an organic farming and certification expert and former chairman of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
“We expect that the new Obama leadership at the USDA will fully respect the intent of Congress by vigorously enforcing the organic regulations, protecting ethical farmers and the nation’s consumers,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director and cofounder of the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.