The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) isn’t exactly known as “farm-friendly.” It’s been in bed with factory farming and feedlot meat for far too long to enjoy much credibility on that front. (Current USDA Secretary, former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack “was a leading advocate for Monsanto, genetic engineering, and biotech.”)
So, while it’s… nice… that the USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food blog (what food writer Kim Severson refers to as the “farmer as rockstar” movement) — including an espoused interest in positive initiatives like local food in U.S. public schools — it’s worthwhile to consider the context, and remember that Vilsack and the USDA and even the White House might not always define “farmers” in the conventional image so beautifully lit and photographed on their lovely site.
For example, in addition to small-farmer opposition to Vilsack, Obama also drew fire from environmentalists for appointing pesticide/biotech/CropLife lobbyist Islam A. Siddiqui as Chief Agricultural Negotiator in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. He was confirmed despite the somewhat confusing and uncharacteristic holdout by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning (one headline was labeled KY Senator Jim Bunning screws up; Does Something Good). A New York Times editorial questioned Siddiqui’s appointment and made note that CropLife “openly scoffed at Michelle Obama’s plans for an organic garden.” Civil Eats posted this in opposition to the appointment.
Often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing when it comes to the politics of food. Lexington’s Compton Fellow, Miranda Hileman, chronicles her past year in Lexington in this week’s Ace, and points out in an entry from last fall, “The Governor’s Conference on Energy and the Environment was hosted in Lexington with no mention of food whatsoever!”
In his recent NYT Review of Books article on the rising food movement, Michael Pollan points out that Gore’s Inconvenient Truth “made scant mention of food or agriculture, but in his recent follow-up book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis Gore devotes a long chapter to the subject of our food choices and their bearing on climate.”)
Pollan points out, “although cheap food is good politics, it turns out there are significant costs—to the environment, to public health, to the public purse, even to the culture—and as these became impossible to ignore in recent years, food has come back into view.”
His article looks at the proliferation of books on the subject, including the libertarian Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front; All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals; along with Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities (foreward by Alice Waters); and The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society). He footnotes a case study, The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.
He devotes a section to food politics, noting, “Attorney General Eric Holder recently avowed the Justice Department’s intention to pursue antitrust enforcement in agribusiness, one of the most highly concentrated sectors in the economy.3 At his side was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, who has planted his own organic vegetable garden at the department and launched a new ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative aimed at promoting local food systems as a way to both rebuild rural economies and improve access to healthy food. Though Vilsack has so far left mostly undisturbed his department’s traditional deference to industrial agriculture…'”
As for Siddiqui’s controversial appointment, Pollan writes “that while the administration may be sympathetic to elements of the food movement’s agenda, it isn’t about to take on agribusiness, at least not directly, at least until it senses at its back a much larger constituency for reform.”
Pollan quotes Wendell Berry’s stance on the corporate willingness to “grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.”
Pollan’s conclusions are correct when he asserts “food is invisible no longer.” Scrutiny’s a wondrous thing and sunlight is the best disinfectant.
So while the USDA is to be commended on a step in the right direction — Yes, everyone should know their farmers! — it’s an equally good idea to remember to follow the money where politics is concerned.