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At the UDSA, What Does Change Mean?

By Samuel Fromartz

Added December 2, 2009. The new team heading up USDA has raised hopes in the world of organic and sustainable farming that the agriculture agency is changing for the better. What a thought!

But the reality, of course, is more nuanced and complicated. And it’s important to understand how this is playing out, so you don’t get overly excited or disappointed by what comes to pass.

First, the good news.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appointed Kathleen Merrigan – who drafted the original organic food production act in the late 1980s - as his deputy secretary. She has long been involved with organic agriculture and most recently was a professor at the Tufts School of Nutrition.

She announced plans to make the NOP a stand-alone agency within the USDA, rather than part of the Agricultural Marketing Service. Congress also raised the annual budget of the national organic program to $7 million from $3.5 million in its annual appropriations. Then, a well-respected long-time certifier, Miles McEvoy, was appointed as head of the NOP.

These events signaled that the organic sector has received significant attention from the Powers that Be – and importantly, that the NOP might be on a more steady, predictable and fair course in the years ahead.

In other positive actions in the late summer and fall, the USDA, under Merrigan’s direction, also launched a Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program aimed directly at promoting local food systems.

I took part in some of the events in Washington as part of this program, including a local lunch at the USDA cafeteria and a brief discussion with Merrigan about the initiative.

She emphasized that already-existing programs were being repurposed and tailored to fit this new mission – an easier task than trying to squeeze new money from Congress. The money was already there, she emphasized, it was just a question of using it for the right thing, such as funding farmers’ marketing programs rather than making loans for fast-food restaurants in rural areas.

All of this was encouraging, especially coming against the backdrop of a long series of struggles ever since the NOP came into existence, and in light of the weak efforts by the previous administration to do much of anything to reform the status quo.

The positive news was also reinforced by First Lady Michelle Obama’s planting of an organic garden on the White House lawn, opening a farmers market one block from the White House, and publicly speaking out about issues like child nutrition and obesity. President Obama openly talking about potential solutions like a soda tax.

But - and this is a big “but” – the moves also disappointed advocates who were looking for even bigger changes. A USDA official was asked at one meeting of sustainable chefs whether the new thrust at the department would eventually lead to the end of big agricultural subsidies. That clearly isn’t going to happen, she told them honestly – at least not without a big push in Congress.
Others called the amount of money (initially $65 million) for local food initiative as paltry in comparison to commodity subsidies. They are, but this is also the first time an administration has brought any kind of focus to local food systems work.

In short, even with this fresh new approach, the USDA is not going to ban GMOs, outlaw pesticides or suddenly launch a battle against agribusiness.

So what do the new initiatives amount to?

You can either look at them as a glass half-full or one that’s half-empty. Those disappointed with the USDA’s moves are definitely viewing this as half-empty. They feel they amount to window dressing that will do little to change things.

I tend to fall into the glass half-full camp and view these measures positively. For the first time, advocates can lobby for real change in one sector of the market: organic and sustainable agriculture – and get an ear at the highest levels of the USDA.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath looking for major changes on the agricultural landscape. At a meeting in Iowa, Vilsack was asked what he intended to do to stop Big Ag and help small farmers. He replied “I have two sons and I love ‘em both. And, your question is kind of, ‘Which son do you love the most?’ This is a difficult set of issues.”

Vilsack & Co. will not forsake big agriculture, so rather than fight that war, I’d say push for changes that are possible: such as a healthier organic sector, better organic regulations, more support of small and local farms and food systems so that these long-ignored sectors get their fair share. And, of course, better regulatory oversight of GMOs and pesticides.

If you’re looking for fundamental change in the agriculture system, the impetus for such change will have to come from elsewhere – from citizen advocacy, or maybe even the Justice Department’s antitrust division (which is probing Monsanto and Dean Foods). I don’t expect the USDA to spearhead a fundamental change, but that doesn’t mean change won’t come – and in small steps or big ones they’d both be welcome.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (Harcourt 2006). His web-site is at www.fromartz.com and he blogs at www.chewswise.com.