Forget the USDA

I try to avoid politics on this website, but there has been so much hand-wringing this week in the sustainable agriculture community about Barack Obama’s agriculture choice for Secretary of Agriculture that I feel compelled to respond. I can’t find much good to say about Tom Vilsack, but I have low expectations for the job he’s filling, and I would have been surprised had Obama picked somebody I really liked.

Realistically, a president (or anyone else, for that matter) can take on only so many established interests at once. Obama has a certain amount of political capital to spend on programs that will be unpopular with the people or with the powerful, and he’s made his priorities clear from the beginning of his campaign. Agriculture isn’t one of them. If you thought it was, you were hearing what you wanted to hear. Given that his priorities lie elsewhere — with clean energy, education, and health care — he can’t be expected to appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who will take on big agribusiness. Even if his sympathies are with sustainable agriculture (and they may or may not be, depending on how you read them), he has to pick his battles — and that’s good, smart politics. If Barack Obama were not a terribly smart politician, he wouldn’t have beaten the Chicago political machine, the Clintons, and the RNC in his rise to the White House. But now he’s supposed to forget everything he knows about politics and take on everybody at once? If you want to win, you have to stay focused.

I’m trying to imagine how any person could have been elected President in 2008 with sustainable agriculture as a key issue, and I can’t see it. First, there are too many pressing matters right now for structural change in agriculture to bubble to the top, even if it had broad popular support. (Two wars, a massive recession, and frighteningly volatile oil prices would lead any sane politician’s list.)

Second, a large majority of Americans do not understand these issues. They have no idea what conditions are like in a “factory farm” or on the floor of an industrial slaughterhouse — or they choose not to think about it. They have no clear idea what “organic” really means, or why it is better, or indeed whether it’s better at all. They see $4 cartons of cage-free brown eggs and $20 locally-raised free-range chickens as luxuries they can’t afford. And they know nothing at all of Roundup-Ready corn and spider goats and seed saving. They, too, have other priorities.

Third, the nature of Presidential elections and the structure of the federal government doesn’t favor a radical shift in agriculture policy. It’s difficult to get elected without support from “farm states,” especially when a big one, Iowa, holds the first caucus and an important key to a candidate’s success in later primaries. It’s even more difficult to get legislation through Congress without support from those states, which despite their small population have equal representation in the Senate. A farm-state governor or senator who takes on big agribusiness is likely to have spent his political capital and run himself out of office before he has the chance to run for President, because taking on corporate interests while still seeming to support family farms is a very difficult balancing act. A city or coastal candidate would have to take the shortest possible route to midwestern support, and that’s supporting the agricultural mainstream.

Finally, sustainable agriculture is to a great extent about the small and the local. How, then, does it make sense to think that the USDA will support that? Functional, effective, successful and sustainable community-based agriculture wouldn’t need the USDA at all, and no massive bureaucracy is voluntarily going to bring about its own end. Nationalizing the organic standards helped big farms and corporations sell through supermarkets far more than it helped CSAs and farmers’ markets (if it helped the latter at all). Any new regulations will be hardest on small producers, as regulations always are. The USDA itself would have to be completely restructured, and restructuring a federal agency is never easy — as the Department of Homeland Security has demonstrated.

Structural change isn’t coming to agriculture in 2009. It wasn’t coming in 2009 no matter who was elected President. That doesn’t mean it isn’t coming eventually — but it is going to take a lot more education to generate the kind of broad-based political support that would make that kind of change possible. We are, after all, talking about a revolution. A realistic hope for the Obama presidency is that his administration not actively make anything worse, keepbig agribusiness on a six-foot leash, and give farmers, teachers, and activists time to continue the work of real change. There’s no harm in asking for more — indeed we should certainly ask for more — but the danger of expecting more is that we become too quickly frustrated when we don’t get it, throw up our hands, and quit. I was disturbed to read that activists felt “despair” over Vilsack’s nomination. Disappointment, sure, but despair? Obama ain’t the Messiah, folks, but he’s a heck of a lot better than the last guy, so let’s accept the small victory and get back to work. We are, after all, the change we seek.