Obama is booting a chance for reform in agriculture

The two leading candidates for Secretary of Agriculture would do little to change the way we grow our food and treat our farmland.
The two leading candidates for Secretary of Agriculture would do little to change the way we grow our food and treat our farmland.

When even David Brooks is openly cheering Barack Obama's transition appointments, it's clear the new guy is on a roll. Obama has so far managed to stock his Cabinet with reputed moderates and pragmatists, without ticking off the political left that feels he owes them.

That could end with the Secretary of Agriculture. The Hill reports that Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) are the frontrunners for the position. If the D.C. paper is correct, it could be the first significant Obama letdown for environmentalists, slow-food evangelists, and liberals at large who pay attention to food and hunger issues.

For many who have worked to overhaul the sprawling U.S. Farm Bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Peterson represents the worst of status-quo thinking. Herseth Sandlin would probably draw less ire, but she also sits on the House Ag Committee, hardly a hotbed of change.

Chuck Hassebrook of the innovative Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska does a good job outlining what's at stake in a Des Moines Register op-ed:

Nothing better illustrates the broken politics of Washington than farm and rural policy. The federal government spends billions subsidizing mega farms to drive smaller farms off the land and often penalizes the best environmental stewards with lower payments. It largely fails to invest in the future of America's rural communities.

For example, in 2005 the Department of Agriculture spent nearly twice as much to subsidize the 260 biggest farms across 13 leading farm states than on rural development initiatives to create economic opportunity for the 3 million people living in those states' 260 most struggling rural counties. That does not help family farms or small-town Americans. It does not serve the common good'ꀦ

Obama's administration must be determined and unified to overcome the inertia and cynicism of farm and rural politics. The commitment of the president is the most critical element, but the commitment of his secretary of agriculture is almost as important.

The 501(c)3 status of Hassebrock's organization likely keeps him from naming names in the Secretary of Ag race. Others are convinced Obama could do better than Peterson. Tom Philpott of Grist notes the agribusiness defenders advising the transition team on agriculture, which doesn't bode well for Michael Pollan fans and other reform-minded folks. (A petition to nominate the Omnivore's Dilemma author for the job swept through the sustainable food ranks, but blogger Steph Larsen explains why that's about as realistic as the campaign to nominate Willie Nelson.)

Nothing official has been announced yet, of course. As Philpott points out, an establishment Secretary of Ag means the pressure for significant change on food, farm, and rural policy will have to come, as usual, from the grass roots.


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