Obama's campaign promise should reach into the corrupt organic food industry

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. -- While former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack testified before Congress during confirmation hearings, a controversy was bubbling in the organic food and farming industry concerning his appointment.

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. -- While former Iowa Gov. 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture 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 still am optimistic that when Obama talked about "change" during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at USDA.

Before Vilsack's confirmation, more than 130,000 petition signatures had been collected by two advocacy groups, urging Obama to appoint a USDA secretary who would embody that change. When the president tapped Vilsack, a 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, more than 100,000 signatures, calling on Congress to reject the Vilsack nomination.


Subsequently, the Organic Consumer Association's outreach prompted a group of the organic industry's corporate CEOs to launch their own 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), signed on in support of Vilsack. Their petition, totaling about 550 signatories, included many Iowa residents who personally worked with Vilsack when he was governor.

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

Although The Cornucopia Institute has not endorsed or condemned Vilsack, we have not given up hope that Obama will usher in material changes at USDA's National Organic Program.

Obama has made it clear that he will be the CEO of the new executive branch management team. Now that Vilsack has been confirmed and the White House has ordered reinstated transparency under its purview, we hope there will be a 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 supporting 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 communication to the Obama team, Cornucopia described USDA's National Organic Program as "dysfunction-

al" 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 say, based on information gathered from freedom of information documents we have 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, 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 USDA's National Organic Standards Board.

We expect the new Obama leadership at 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, 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 and the Inspector General's office also 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.

The Cornucopia Institute is ready to work with Vilsack to create an organic program within 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.

Editor's Note: Kastel is a cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute and is its senior farm policy analyst.

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