USDA Secretary Nominee Causes Dustup in Organic Industry

January 14th, 2009

Obama Administration Challenged to Clean up Bush’s Organic Mess

WASHINGTON, DC: As former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack begins his confirmation hearings in Congress, a controversy is brewing in the organic food and farming industry concerning his appointment.

For the last eight years, Bush administration officials at the USDA have been widely criticized for “monkeywrenching” the National Organic Program. They have been accused of not enforcing the law and, among other improprieties, allowing giant factory farms to produce organic milk, meat, and eggs.

Understandably, the industry viewed Barack Obama’s election as a likely turning point. “We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about “change” during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

Over 130,000 petition signatures have been collected by two advocacy groups, urging the Obama transition team to appoint a USDA secretary who would embody that change. When Obama tapped former Governor Tom Vilsack, an Iowa lawyer with strong past backing for genetic engineering and a close relationship with corporate agribusiness interests, some organic proponents expressed their opposition.

The Organic Consumers Association, the largest group of its nature, is now in the midst of a pressure campaign, backed by 40,000 signatures, calling on Congress to reject the Vilsack nomination.

The success of the Organic Consumer Association’s outreach prompted a group of the organic industry’s corporate CEOs to launch their own counter petition drive in support of the Obama nominee.

Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., the nation’s near-monopoly organic and natural foods distributor, have signed on in support of Mr. Vilsack. Their petition, totaling about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents who personally worked with Mr. Vilsack when he was governor.

“We hate to see what appears to be the grassroots lining up in opposition of this nominee and corporate investors breaking with their most dedicated customers. This split is not healthy for the organic community,” Kastel added.

Although The Cornucopia Institute is not endorsing either petition drive, they have not given up hope that the election of Barack Obama will usher in material changes at the USDA’s National Organic Program.

“Mr. Obama has made it clear that he will be the CEO of the new executive branch management team,” Kastel added. We fully expect, whether or not Mr. Vilsack is confirmed, which appears likely, that the White House will reinstate transparency and a sense of dedication to serving the public at what Lincoln called the “People’s Department.”

President-Elect Obama, and his family, will be the first residents of the White House with a history of eating, and support for, organic food.

In a candid communique to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia Institute described the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) as “dysfunctional” and experiencing a “crisis in confidence” and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.

Their letter described the NOP’s long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. It said, based on information gathered from freedom of information documents: “Senior management, with oversight of the NOP, has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to corporations with interests in the organic industry.”

“We would strongly recommend, as many public corporations do when trying to regain shareholder and Wall Street confidence, that the Department bring in a highly respected and skilled individual from the outside to run this program,” added Kastel.

Cornucopia has backed a widely circulated list of progressive agricultural policy experts as potential sub-Cabinet level appointees including Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., a food policy professor at Tufts University as well as a former top USDA administrator, and James Riddle, currently with the University of Minnesota, who is an organic farming and certification expert and former chairman of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

“We expect that the new Obama leadership at the USDA will fully respect the intent of Congress by vigorously enforcing the organic regulations, protecting ethical farmers and the nation’s consumers,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director and cofounder of the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group.

In addition to having a program staff devoid of professional or academic backgrounds in organic agriculture, the USDA has been sharply criticized for “stacking” the NOSB, the expert advisory panel set up by Congress, with corporate interests.

Audits prepared by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Inspector General’s office were damning in their criticism of the program’s failure to respect the NOSB’s Congressionally mandated purview over policy and the program’s failure to carry out its most fundamental responsibility – oversight and accreditation of the nation’s network of independent organic certifiers.

“If confirmed by Congress, we stand ready to work with former Governor Vilsack to create an organic program within the USDA that the Obama administration can truly be proud of and that will help grow a segment of the agricultural industry that shows so much promise for our rural economies and the health of our citizenry,” stated Kastel.

Copies of the audits of the National Organic Program by the American National Standards Institute and the office of the Inspector General at the USDA are available upon request from The Cornucopia Institute: cultivate@cornucopia.org

An organizing campaign, by Food Democracy Now, supporting a dozen “progressive” candidates for sub-Cabinet appointments at the USDA (originally the list was circulated as suggestions to the Obama transition team for Secretary), and now including over 69,000 electronic signatures, can be found at: http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/

The Organic Consumers Association petition, currently with over 40,000 names, opposing the confirmation of former Governor Tom Vilsack, can be viewed at:
http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/642/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=1783

The petition, and signatories, organized by corporate officials of a number of the nation’s leading organic brands can be viewed at:
http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/support-vilsack-for-secretary-of-agriculture/

Although the organizers of the industry-backed petition include many corporate officers, and a few nonprofit advocacy groups, some that get the majority of their financial backing from corporate interests in the organic industry, the list includes many respected individuals, including farmers from Iowa, and even relatives of the former Governor. Their petition drive states a goal of 10,000 electronic signatures. The list stands currently at 539 (PM/CST on 1-13-09).

“Because of the blowback that the Vilsack nomination has garnered in the organic and sustainable farming communities, it would be an astute political move to come right out of the blocks with a strong affirmation, on the record, in support of the wholesale housecleaning at the USDA’s organic program,” stated Kastel. “A positive statement on organics now, by Mr. Vilsack, should satisfy both the corporate and grassroots factions now competing in the (organic) marketplace of ideas.”

“During Governor Vilsack’s tenure in office, Iowa was one of the early states investing in an organic program at their department of agriculture, and its land grant university started addressing the needs of organic farmers,” added Kastel. “We hope that history is representative of how the nominee will balance competing interests within the department.”

Even though a handful of giant industrial-scale farms are producing a growing share of the nation’s organic milk, meat, and eggs, the majority of all organic brands still get their produce and commodities from ethical, family-scale farmers.

A scorecard, listing the nation’s 110+ organic dairy brands, can be found on The Cornucopia Institute website.

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