USDA Secretary Nominee Causes Dustup in Organic Industry

January 29th, 2009

Obama Administration Challenged to Clean up Bush’s Organic Mess

Mark Kastel
The Cornucopia Institute

While former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack testified before Congress during confirmation hearings, a controversy was bubbling 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. I am still optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about “change” during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA.

Over 130,000 petition signatures had been collected by two advocacy groups, urging Mr. Obama to appoint a USDA secretary who would embody that change. When the president 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, had engaged in a pressure campaign, backed by, according to the organization, over 100,000 signatures, calling on Congress to reject the Vilsack nomination.

Subsequently, 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 to show support for the Obama nominee.

Officers of some of the largest corporate entities, such as 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 550 signatories, includes many Iowa residents who personally worked with Mr. Vilsack when he was governor.

We are disappointed to see what appears to be the grassroots lining up in opposition to the nominee and corporate investors breaking away from their most dedicated customers. This split is not healthy for the organic community.

Although The Cornucopia Institute had not endorsed either petition drive, we 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. Now that Mr. Vilsack has been confirmed, and the White House has ordered reinstated transparency under its purview, we hope there will be new sense of dedication to serving the public at what Lincoln called the “People’s Department”.

President Obama, and his family, will be the first residents of the White House with a history of eating, and support for, organic food (at least since the pre-World War II era when most food in this country could’ve been certified as organic).

In a candid communique to the Obama transition team, Cornucopia 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.

Cornucopia described the NOP’s long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. We said, based on information gathered from freedom of information documents we secured, that: “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 are strongly recommending, as many public corporations do when trying to regain shareholder and Wall Street confidence, that the Department bring in highly respected and skilled individuals from the outside to run this program.

Cornucopia has backed a widely circulated list of 12 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.

In addition to having 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 also 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.

We stand ready to work with Secretary Vilsack to create an organic program within the USDA that the Obama administration and Americans 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.

If you are interested in taking a look at the two dueling petition campaigns they can be found at:

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