Towards a sustainable USDA

What are the prospects for sustainability within the Department of Agriculture under the Obama Administration?

Over the past months this question has been discussed with many recommendations and ideas the result. For example, last October Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Botany of Desire and other books, wrote an open letter ("Farmer in Chief") in the New York Times to the President-Elect.

"This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you've inherited - Michael Pollandesigned to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so - are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute. The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. "

The core idea, he pointed out, is "we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine."

For Pollan, a 21st-century food system needs to:

  1. Strive to provide a healthful diet for everyone.
  2. Improve the resilience, safety and security of our food supply.
  3. Reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.

Others have been concentrated their efforts into lobbying the President to appoint the ideal sustainability candidate for Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture. Food Democracy Now  petitioned the President with a list of the "sustainable dozen" candidates they believe would bring "sustainable change" into the USDA.

As they described the problem in their original letter to Obama, "the current system unnaturally favors economies of scale, consolidation and market concentration and the allocation of massive subsidies for commodities, all of which benefit the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families." In contrast to a system oriented more towards big agribusiness and the methods and results of industrial agriculture, they call for a vision and policies "recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment, biodiversity and the health of our children while implementing policies that place conservation, soil health, animal welfare and worker's rights as well as sustainable renewable energy near the top of their agenda."

Unfortunately, President Obama's choice did not include any of the Sustainable Dozen. Instead, the President Tom Vilsackpicked Tom Visack, previous governor of Iowa. Not everyone has been happy with this choice.

However, there still remains the pick of Under-secretaries of Agriculture, Food Democracy Now points out, and there is still time to sign their petition and promote their list.

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