This is what democracy looks like

merrigankathleenToday is a big day for all of us who believe not only in sustainable food and agriculture systems, but also in the democratic process. The months since the election brought an outpouring of engagement from citizens urging the Obama Administration to appoint change-makers to lead our country.

And it paid off.

Kathleen Merrigan is headed to Washington.

It is because of you.

And we are not done yet.

Because thousands of us raised our voices on Food Democracy Now website, signed petitions like the one at the Center for Rural Affairs, wrote letters, called senators and generally raised a democratic ruckus, Kathleen Merrigan was nominated today to be the Deputy Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture. As the second-highest ranking official at USDA, Dr. Merrigan will have a portfolio of issues assigned to her by Secretary Vilsack and will act as the Secretary of Agriculture if Secretary Vilsack is unable to do his job.

Dr. Merrigan is a thrillingly unexpected pick. Currently the Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment MS and PhD Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, she previously held a variety of policymaking jobs at the state, federal, and international level, including running the Agricultural Marketing Service of USDA under President Clinton. She also worked at Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and at the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  She was a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry under Chairman Patrick Leahy and helped to write the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 that mandated national organic standards, later guiding the federal organic labeling program at the USDA.

As an organizer, I recognize that our work is just beginning. There are hundreds of political appointments to be made at USDA, and we cannot be satisfied with this one. Democracy won today, but it will win tomorrow only if we stay engaged and keep pushing for great people to fill these positions.

What will your next steps be?

If you already looked through this list of USDA positions, it’s time to go over it again and think of another suggestion, or convince another qualified person to apply. Call your Senators and remind them to recommend candidates who embody the values of sustainable food systems. These positions aren’t all filled yet, and your legislators need to know that you’re still paying attention.

I’ll leave you with the words of Mahatma Gandhi, and remember that now is the time to fight:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

16 Responsesto “This is what democracy looks like”

  1. Elanor says:

    I did my grad work under Kathleen’s mentorship and could not be happier about her nomination. Yeah!

  2. Sam Fromartz says:

    Yes, this is a major, major win. Now there will be a door open at USDA for many of the concerns raised on this blog. Let’s hope she can move forward.

  3. Julie MacCartee says:

    As one of Kathleen’s current students, I will be sad to see her go – she has taught me a great deal in my first semester and a half at Tufts. But even more so, I am incredibly excited that she has received such a top nomination! This gives lots of hope to current and future advocates of sustainable & organic agriculture.

  4. SarahB says:

    As a former student of Kathleen’s and lover of sustainable agriculture, I could not be more thrilled!  What a great day!

  5. Bob Comis says:

    Note before I get into my comment that I am a strong supporter of organic farming and an even stronger supporter of local-regional farm and food systems.

    I find the idea that Kathleen Merrigan’s post is an example of democracy in action troubling. There is nothing democratic about it. Only a very small percentage of the national population supports organic farming — it amounts to about 3% of the total food market, and while a higher percentage support organic farming in theory, rather than in practice, it is still a substantial minority of the population. Democratically-speaking, the majority of Americans still support a synthetic-chemical based industrial agriculture, although within the last few years, more and more Americans are growing increasingly concerned about the obvious shortcomings of this system. Presently, however, they do not want to chuck it in favor of an organic and/or small-scale local-regional system. They would prefer to institute policies and procedures that ameliorate and mitigate those shortcomings — they want to treat the symptoms.

    What we have witnessed is not a democratic outcome, but rather the anti-democratic outcome of the concerted efforts of a well-organized, vocal minority using the strategies and tactics of single-issue interest group politics to pursue its own agenda — an agenda, which I noted at the beginning of this comment I fully support.

    The democratic process is not about bending the ear of politicians who in turn appoint people who will pursue your agenda. The democratic process is about making substantial arguments and telling compelling stories that bring the opinions and ideas of a majority of your political community members in line with your own, and then having enacted policies that are firmly in line with the wishes of that truly democratic majority.

    Rather than pursuing democratic communication with your political community members, you have short-circuited the democratic process and had installed into power in an authoritarian power grab a person who is going to impose on your political community members an agenda that they do not support. Over time, certainly, under that authoritarian imposition a great many of them might come around to this agenda, but it will not be as a result of a democratic process.

  6. aliza says:

    To add to the chorus of thrilled past and present students…I am so excited about Kathleen’s nomination. Although I ended up switching to a different program in the school, Kathleen’s policy class was one of my favorite classes throughout grad school, and probably the most useful of all of them.

  7. Alicia H says:


    I will also throw in a few words for Kathleen, among those who have worked with and learned from her in the academic arena. She’s a fantastic pick–forward-thinking, tough, and well-versed in the political machinery. I know I’m one of many in the AFE program who are thrilled to see her bring her talents and perspective back to the political arena. Congrats, Kathleen!

  8. Steph Larsen says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and I will respond to them more deeply in a subsequent comment.

    My title comes from the fact that many people saw an opportunity to be involved in the democratic process, they organized, spoke up, and their voices were clearly heard because the person chosen for Deputy Secretary is not a shill for industrial agriculture.  Democracies are controlled by the folks who show up, and I’m proud of my colleagues for doing just that.

    I would also question whether organic agriculture is only supported by 3% of the American people. If the prices were the same and the amount of research and advertising were comparable to conventional agriculture, then perhaps we could compare broccoli to broccoli.

    Regardless, Dr. Merrigan is far from being only an organic agriculture supporter, so I think it’s a mischaracterization to say that only folks who support organic would also support her for Deputy Secretary.

  9. farmboy says:

    I will disqualify myself as an objective bystander since Dr. Merrigan hired me twice (she didn’t hire, fire and re-hire me; it was two different jobs)

    I think that Bob’s anxiety about the organic coup is unwarranted.  One of the reason’s that Dr. Merrigan makes an excellent candidate for the Deputy Secretary position (which runs the ship while the Secretary does the high profile policy work) is that she ran a large, bulky, bureaucratic federal agency – the Agricultural Marketing Service.  She received hire profile attention for sheparding the organic regulation to completion, but for two and a half years she had vast national responsibilities including purchasing commodities for the school lunch program, grading eggs, monitoring rail freight and a lot more.  It was a running joke with her at the time that she could never find out just how many thousand employees she had or just how many millions were in the AMS budget.   I was inside the building at the time and I don’t think you’ll find any non-organic programs or constituencies who felt left out or short-changed.  Dr. Merrigan is a person of impeccable integrity, amazing modesty, and genuine compassion - I would be confident to place ANY federal program under her management.

    I don’t accept the premise underlying Bob’s post that we must have an eithor/or USDA, one that either supports conventional agriculture, or organic.  Instead, I believe that both can co-exist and even learn from each other.  The organic folks have certainly had the door slammed in our faces for a long, long time; I can assure you that Dr. Merrigan will be a much more gracious hostess when non-organic constituents show up expecting service. 

    Regarding how politics works, I think that David Brower said it best:  “Politicians are ike weather vanes.  Our job is to make the wind blow.”

  10. Nick Fitzkee says:

    Echoing Bob’s concerns, I wonder what the end result of all these “democratic” appointments will be?  If the goal of an organically minded USDA is to mandate food decisions for people (who presumably aren’t smart enough to choose for themselves), then I’d say that’s not democratic either.  Frankly, it scares me that I may be required by law to pay more money for genetically identical food that’s half as efficient to produce.

    I’m a scientist (Ph.D. in Biophysics), and naturally I’m interested in statistics, evidence, and positive results before I take someone’s advice on how I spend time and money.  So far I’ve found the organic farming argument uncompelling: its poor efficiency is a huge problem for me, and so far the nutritional benefits that I’ve seen aren’t statistically significant.  Many elements of this movement smack of “liberal halal” (not my term), and I’m hesitant to legislate someone’s (albeit valid) personal preference on the population at large.

    On the other hand, I can get behind some elements of the movement:  It’s right to want safer, biodegradeable pesticides, and it’s good to encourage animal health while minimizing the use of antibiotics.  It’s also highly desirable to maintain productivity while reducing waste and reliance on petrochemicals.  Political appointees who support continued study of the benefit of organic foods as well as enforcement established scientific consensus as policy are indeed a welcome change in the white house.  However, appointees that simply replace one uninformed dogma with another will simply represent more of the same, and not any real progress of democracy.

  11. farmboy says:

    It struck me that Nick’s post works much better for me when I substitute the term “genetically modified food” for “organic farming”.  Doing so certainly makes his post more representative of the last fifteen years of USDA, EPA and FDA food policy.  I’ll have to think some more about the repalcement for “liberal halal”; perhaps reductionist insanity?   

  12. Steph Larsen says:

    Nick, you might want to check out the Rodale Institute Farming System Trial, which is the longest running (that I know of) side by side organic vs. conventional trial. It shows organic yields equal or higher than conventional.

    As to your other concerns, it may behoove both you and Bob to read up on Dr. Merrigan before you make more uninformed judments.

  13. Bob Comis says:

    I should point out that what Merrigan actually does in her position is incidental to my point, which was about whether the process that got her put into that position was democratic. I obviously did assume in my comment that she would promote an agenda that the activists who got her into that position would be happy with. However, if she turns out to be more even keeled, I think the criticism of the process as it relates to the question of democracy is still relevant and valid.

    I have been continually bemused that in the public discourse people keep quoting the “87,000 signatures” number as if it is a substantial number of signatures. Even if you apply some outrageous multiple — I can’t remember what staffers typically use — it is still a very small minority, which again, means that this was an anti-democratic outcome, assuming that seating Merrigan is viewed by those signers as a “victory.”

  14. Nick Fitzkee says:

    Thanks for the link; I’ll check it out.

  15. Ali says:

    Bob, I  see your point, but I suspect what Steph was communicating (or at least what I read) was joy that actual people — rather than lobbying firms or big agribusiness donors — were being listened to here. From where I’m sitting, that feels like a change, a positive one.

    I also agree that Merrigan is reasonsed, though I know that wasn’t your point.

  16. Lev says:

    Alright! Change is here!! Somebody in favor of organic foods is going to be secretary of agriculture! Oh, you mean she’s NOT? She’s the second banana to Monsanto corporate shill Tom Vilsack? You mean… she might just be a sop to the organic food people while the actual decisions are made over her head by the corporate puppet Vilsack and his equally-corporate equally-manipulated president Obama? That’s Obama for you. Stasis you can believe in.