Sunday, December 28, 2008

Food and Politics Part 2

Needless to say I am more than a little disappointed in President-Elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture; however, I still have hope that he will bring about the change he outlines in his visionary agenda for rural America.

I have included a letter to the members of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, an organization near and dear to my heart. I appreciate the thoughts and sentiments of Brian Snyder, PASA’s wise and well-spoken executive director:

Dear PASA Members,

Several of you have written to share your thoughts, or ask for mine, regarding President-elect Obama’s selection last week of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for our new Secretary of Agriculture. It has taken a few days for me to absorb the information and reflect on it, and I offer the following thoughts for your own consideration.

Though I am optimistic about the future of the sustainable ag movement and where it might go during the Obama administration, I would agree with many of you that there is plenty of reason for caution and concern with respect to the appointment of Vilsack. First off, he would be the third former Midwestern governor in an row to hold that position, perpetuating the institutional bias in Washington that tends to have in mind vast expanses of monoculture when thinking of what a farm is and should be. Vilsack has also been a strong supporter of corn-based ethanol production, which has come under increasing scrutiny as a likely diversion from rather than solution for our nation’s energy problems. Of course, along with that he is a strong advocate for bioengineered crops of all kinds.

But despite these concerns, I think we should all consider the following three factors that I would submit are true beyond much doubt:

1) It was never really “in the cards” that one of the candidates put forward by the sustainable ag community in that petition we circulated two weeks ago would get the job, especially after appearing on such a list. Given the entrenchment of the conventional ag establishment, the confirmation hearing would have been a circus, which probably would not have benefited anyone.

2) The revolution in agriculture that we are working for has never been, nor ever will be top-down in nature. The “change” we seek is happening one farmer and one consumer at a time, bit by bit as an evolution of the marketplace itself. So far as I can tell, government can only try to impede or facilitate this transition to occur, but can never really drive it.

3) We are probably much better off with a former state governor as Secretary of Agriculture than we would be with a member of Congress who might have served on either Ag Committee, or with some other member of the conventional establishment who already has strong relationships with big agribusiness. Governors in general are practiced at finding compromise and pleasing a wide range of people with diverse interests – a skill that will certainly be needed at the USDA if we are to make any headway at all in the next four years.

So, while I am not defending the selection of Vilsack, I think Obama could have done much worse with respect to our community and our interests. Fact is, we will learn more as some of the next tier of appointments is made to see if the new secretary will foster a diversity of opinion and strategy within the department, or not. Meanwhile, we all can do our best to continue implementing more sustainable food and farming systems in our own backyard, and to make our voices heard when the opportunities arise.

As for me, I will invite Secretary Vilsack to attend our conference in February to witness firsthand the strength, diversity and positive nature of our movement. He is after all a native of Pennsylvania (born and raised in Pittsburgh), and might find such a homecoming to be just the right touch at the beginning of his tenure. But whether or not he comes, I look forward to seeing many of you there again this year, as once again we shall certainly have much to talk about by then!

All of us on the staff and board of PASA wish all of you a most joyous holiday season. May you rediscover for yourselves not only the true meaning of this blessed season, but the motivation that will send you back out to the gardens, fields and pastures in the New Year in the interest of serving all humankind in the most basic of ways, with the gift of life and wellbeing that comes most purely from our farms.

Yours sincerely,

Brian Snyder

Another indicator of change is Obama’s pick for Secretary of Labor and her commitment to Green Jobs. Read Van Jones' (author of NY Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy) take on future Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

To read about Van Jones and Green Collar Jobs in the Philadelphia Area click here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Food and Politics

There has been a lot of hope and attention being paid to President-Elect Obama’s pick for the Secretary of Agriculture. The hope comes from the fact that Obama’s transition team has already reached out to the leaders of sustainable agriculture organizations across the country, including Brian Snyder, the wonderful director of PASA—Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

It is now time for you to weigh in! The sustainable ag community and its advocates (including Michael Pollan) have put together a short list of six possible candidates for the position and are collecting signatures for this online petition. I have seen four of the six candidates speak at the PASA-Farming for the Future Conference and they would all be amazing – these four are Sarah Vogel, Fred Kershenmann, Mark Ritchie, and Neil Hamilton – and I am sure the other two candidates are just as qualified.

Time is of the essence, Obama is expected to make his decision very soon, a decision that will effect the way we eat for years to come, so please sign the petition!

For more information about this issue and Obama’s policy’s regarding agriculture check out a recent Bill Moyer’s Journal:

Obama's policy on agriculture on his transition website:

And here is a quote from President-Elect Obama:
There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. 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 mean time, 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. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

And finally, here is a recent New York Time's op-ed by Nicholas Kristof: