Rumors flying about the U.S. Department of Agribusiness as Usual

In the mad scramble preceding Tuesday's droolingly anticipated handover of executive power, there are a lot of politics happening at light speed. And some of them, apparently, are bad news — especially if you're someone who eats food. Yes, that would be you, me, and everyone we know.

The rumor mill is churning with names supposedly being considered for key Department of Agriculture positions that would make just-minted Secretary Tom Vilsack, who never lit our fire, look like Farmer John by comparison.

Steph Larsen has written here about how surprisingly influential the Deputy Secretary and the under secretaries of key USDA programs are. So to hear that Joy Philippi, former president of the National Pork Producers Council and as Tom Philpott wrote for Grist, a "tireless champion of industrial-meat interests," is in the running was truly nauseating. And to kick that stomach while it's churning, add USDA candidate Dennis Wolfe — the Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary who, at Monsanto's bidding, tried to ban information about artificial dairy hormones from milk labels. Lovely. Hey, I hear Tyson CEO Dick Bond just became available, maybe you guys could find room for him at the agency?

Look, I know we've all got activism fatigue — every time I get another email petition headed "save this" or "tell Obama that," my finger twitches ever more uncontrollably toward Delete. But we've got to rouse ourselves for one more little burst of outrage. Because seriously… Philippi? Wolfe? Unacceptable. This isn't change I can believe in, it's agribusiness as usual.

So what can we do? Eh, probably nothing. But hell, here's what we can try:

Sign Food Democracy Now's petition, if you haven't already. And if you have, get your mom (and kid and neighbor) to sign it. Dave Murphy and cohorts revamped it to include 12 really excellent candidates, all competent and willing to serve as Deputy Secretary or any of the various under secretaries. If it can hit 100,000 signatures (it's at 73,000 now), maybe the Powers That Be will see us eaters as just as important a constituency as for example, the industrial meat monopoly.

Feeling braver? See if one of your state's representatives sits on the Senate Ag Committee and contact them (calling is better than emailing; ask to speak to their agriculture staffer) to urge that they lobby hard for any of the 12 people on Food Democracy Now's list. Tell them that 73,000 Americans are supporting the Sustainable Dozen and they're going to be seriously pissed if someone like Philippi or Wolfe gets named to anything in the Obama Administration. If you want to take the positive route, you could mention that Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs would make a stellar Deputy, or even Under Secretary for Rural Development; Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Fellow, could do some real good in Natural Resources and the Environment, which oversees the Conservation Stewardship Program; and Tufts professor Kathleen Merrigan would be a rockin' Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs. Just saying. Slot your own favorite reformer into a dream job.

And, in the last-ditch, throw-the-lance-at-the-windmill maneuver, we can try contacting the two heads of Obama's Agriculture Department transition team: Bart Chilton and Carole Jett. Neither is exactly a friend of the food movement (see here for straight résume info, or enjoy the Haphazard Gourmet Girls' take on the two). But they may be swayable to impassioned pleas along the lines of "Hey! This ain't change!" I have done the Google-mining for you. You can find their email addresses publicly — but, ahem, not officially — listed here (scroll down to the Chilton header) and here (search for Jett).

But do remember: You catch more flies with honey than bile. Even if your stomach is as knotted as mine. (You can read my email to Chilton and Jett after the jump; feel free to adapt and paste in yours in the comments.)

You may now return to your inauguration baking marathon.

Dear Mr. Chilton and Ms. Jett:

I am writing to you as the heads of President Obama's transition team for the Department of Agriculture. I can't find contact info for Secretary Vilsack, or I'd copy him too.

It has come to my attention via the sustainable food blogosphere that people with very clear ties to the industrial meat industry, such as Joy Philippi (formerly of the National Pork Council), and to other small-farmer-unfriendly lobbies, such as Dennis Wolfe (who opposed consumers' right to milk labeling by farms that don't use artificial bovine hormones), are on the short list for Deputy Secretary and/or the top under secretary posts. In a country plagued by CAFO pollution, childhood diabetes, and other crises whose root is a broken food system, we need reformers in the USDA, not agribusiness-as-usual men or women. I am proud to be among the 73,000 and counting Americans who have signed Food Democracy Now's letter urging the consideration of 12 people who are not only qualified to serve, but who might just begin to make the USDA once again the "people's Department," as Lincoln once called it.

I urge you not to sanction the appointment of industry representatives and lobbyists, but instead to consider people like Chuck Hassebrook, Fred Kirschenmann, and Kathleen Merrigan listed here: http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/

Thank you for your time.

4 Responsesto “Rumors flying about the U.S. Department of Agribusiness as Usual”

  1. Bonnie P. says:

    Update: I got an email back from Carole Jett saying "Thank you for your input. I will pass it along." A Comfood subscriber wrote me to tell me that she got one back from Bart Chilton that she paraphrased as, "the work of the Obama Ag Transition Team is apparently complete.  So more emails will make no difference.  All the Ag Transition Team did was submit a list of recommended names (already done).  They have no authority to appoint."

    It still seems to me that if enough people badger them, that will get communicated to Vilsack somehow, so it's worth a shot. Do please let us know what replies you get, if any.

  2. ruffin says:

    Impressed to see that the ag committee site not only still has the 07 farm bill headlining its front page (all about constituent input after the fact?), but a busted link to my senator's home page.  Seems their intern is all over site maintenance.  *sigh*
    Senators' web pages aren't a difficult thing for me to google, but how does our government lack the ability to keep something as simple as a webpage updated for outreach?  The ag committee does a great job putting up the meeting broadcasts, but today's experience was less than impressive.  This website needs to be a better resource for the country.
    Thanks for the info.

  3. Ben says:

    Sorry Bonnie, but what is the source on this?  I've found the rumor mill to be rather unreliable with providing any kind of real information.  Did someone publish a report on this somewhere, did an interview happen, where is this coming from?
    I think it would be strange for these people to get the nod when they've already caused a bit of a fallout last year around this time.