Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

A radical ‘New Deal’ is needed to fix our food supply: picking the next Secretary of Agriculture

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Originally published on on Thu, 12/11/2008 – 11:58am

We are seeing a few more Obama cabinet picks. Health and Human Services is official. And we know who Obama wants for Energy and the EPA Administrator.

But what I am waiting for is Secretary of Agriculture. Michael Winship recently floated the idea of Michael Pollan for the post. If you know anything about Pollan or his books, someone like him would be a welcome change in the post. But Pollan isn’t interested. And Obama should consider him, or someone similar to him, as an adviser for what we should do to improve the farming and food system.

So what is wrong with the food system in this country?

The tomato scare of 2008. The spinach scare of 2006. Ongoing concerns over mad cow disease.

Then we have the spiking and crashing prices of food, for farmers and consumers. The preponderance of high fructose corn syrup and the potential damage to obesity levels. We protect sugar growers, forgoing cheaper sugar that could improve our nutrition and help our oil importing problems.

We have an U.S. Department of Agriculture in charge of regulating food (and clearly not having enough resources to do this job) and in charge of promoting and marketing food. We also have a Food and Drug Administration that spends little time/resources on the first word in its name.

Though Pollan won’t take the job, he does have advice for President-Elect Obama:

“What Obama needs to do, if he indeed wants to make change in this area — and that isn’t clear yet that he does, at least in his first term — I think we need a food policy czar in the White House because the challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it’s connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education.”

There are short-term problems and long-term problems with agriculture. But it does seem like the secretaries have not had much power to fix those issues. Five of the last six Ag Secretaries were politicians: three of them were House Representatives, and the last two were former governors (Nebraska, North Dakota). This isn’t necessarily meant to disparage them, but they haven’t attacked serious issues.

As we learned in King Corn, some of these practices go back to a previous Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz (under Nixon and later Ford). As Wikipedia puts it:

In his time heading the USDA, Butz revolutionized federal agricultural policy and reengineered many New Deal era farm support programs. His mantra to farmers was “get big or get out,” and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn “from fencerow to fencerow.” These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.

It does seem like Butz had power to do things, even if the long-term damages are still being felt today.

The term “New Deal” has been brandied about in terms of revitalizing what Obama needs to do with this country starting on January 20. But perhaps there is no department more worthy about being blown up and started all over.

Corporate farms have done untold damage to our society. The diet of cows continues to thrive on hormones and antibiotics to get the cows to eat food never meant to go in a cow’s stomach. And vegetables, of which we clearly aren’t eating enough of these days, should be a reasonably safe food item on our supermarket shelves and bins.

I have suggested President-Elect Obama utilize Mike Huckabee as a “Secretary of Nutrition” in a bipartisan manner. Huckabee lost over 100 pounds after contracting Type II diabetes, and has written a book on improving nutrition. But someone (Michael Pollan, can you change your mind?) should devote resources in this direction.

We should take away the marketing and promotion of American food products from the USDA. We should fully fund the oversight of food. We should overhaul the obsession with corn.

We should lower our health care costs through programs designed to get Americans to eat better. If salaries rise, it’s possible people can spend this on more nutritious food. Sadly, in food deserts, cheap, non-nutritious food is easy to find while fruits and vegetables are not in great shape and difficult to find.

The idea of a regular, ordinary, average, “let’s reward a politician with a Cabinet post” Secretary of Agriculture is the absolute last thing this country needs. We need a modern-day equivalent of anti-Earl Butz who will do better by our farmers and consumers. President-Elect Obama, please spend your political capital to pick someone who can instigate those changes and give that person the power to make real change.

Written by democracysoup

December 11, 2008 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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