Monday, February 23, 2009

Post-Racial, Post-Gender Agriculture? Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, And The USDA As "The Last Plantation"

The White House has announced that the President will be nominating Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture later this week. Merrigan (in pic) is an assistant professor at Tufts University, where she's currently director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment masters and doctorate program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She has briefly worked at USDA: From 1999 to 2001, she was the administrator for the Agricultural Marketing Service. She's a well known speaker and researcher on sustainable agriculture, and is credited with creating the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which mandated national organic standards and a program of federal accreditation. National organic standards are still the subject of hot debate, almost twenty years later, however.

Merrigan is also one of the "Sustainable Dozen," which is a list of progressive, reform-minded candidates for Deputy Ag Secretary that was compiled by the agricultural advocacy group Food Democracy Now!. The Iowa-based group was founded earlier this year, and has been promoting sustainable changes at the United States Department of Agriculture through an educational campaign which calls for re-thinking how the business of agriculture is conducted in the US (it's educational as much for eaters and growers as it is for policy makers...). Their original open letter to President Obama urging him to consider a more sustainable approach to agriculture turned into a petition of support for FDN!'s goals, and as of today, the petition has 87,436 signatures from concerned citizens all over the country. Interestingly, Food Democracy Now! will be meeting in DC tomorrow with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, to present him their petition in person. Coincidence? Or...?

Secretary Vilsack At The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund Meeting
Also interesting, and related: Jerry Hagstrom of Government Executive is reporting that Secretary Vilsack has announced that the USDA will increase its focus on civil rights issues in the department. The USDA has a looong history, dating back to at least the 1930s, of discriminating against non-white and female populations when deciding who will receive the many benefits of its programs. There have been multiple lawsuits over the years to redress these issues. Having a female Deputy Secretary clearly could help in this area, if only as a visible, initial nod toward change; it could take years to clean up the decades-long mess. Most recently, while speaking for the first time since his confirmation outside of Capitol Hill, on February 21 in Albany, Georgia, at an annual farmers' conference sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land Assistance Fund, at which Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) was present, the very busy Ag Secretary raised the torpid, bad history of the USDA. And he said that now that he's in charge, The Department is going to make every effort to ensure agency procedures are fair to minorities and women. (In pic above, L to R: Ralph Paige, Bizzy Sec V, Sherry Sherrod of the Federation, and Rep. Bishop)

"Some folks refer to USDA as the last plantation, and it has a pretty poor history of taking care of people of color," said Secretary Vilsack, at the meeting.

When his audience described poor treatment at the hands of local Farm Bureau agents, Vilsack responded:

"You've got outright bias and discrimination. Also you've got good people who don't even know that they're discriminating."

Yep, we're pretty sure anyone in the US who is still discriminating on the basis of color in 2009 has no idea that this is both illegal and wrong...and they're good people, for sure.

J.D. Sumner of The Albany Herald, writing about the same meeting, reports that Vilsack also spoke of restructuring the Department of Agriculture to allow for an Under Secretary of Administration that would oversee civil rights issues, who would ensure that policies are fair to everyone. Sec V also apparently suggested/promised/pulled out of his back pocket the idea of hiring a consulting firm that would evaluate procedures at the USDA's regional offices around the country, to identify and eliminate any gender or race biases within the department. (Vilsack, in pic)

“When our first African American president raised his hand and took the oath of office we made a huge step in this country, it's now our job at the USDA to take the next step,” Vilsack told the Federation members.

Related: More on Bizzy Sec V here (a grim view of food safety) and here (spanked by meat lobbyists, startin' a trade war?) and here (bustin' USDA vets for partyin' with animal drugs) and here (Sec V is a millionaire, and receives ag subsidies) and here (considering a lobbyist to run the Food Safety and Inspection Service) and here (admitting he doesn't know who is on USDA's payroll) and here (chatting with Washington Post's Jane Black).

*Kathleen Merrigan is a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, and has a long career in sustainable agriculture; her CV is here.

*Food Democracy Now! founders include Iowa residents and sustainable agriculture advocates David Murphy, Paul Willis and Lisa Stokke; New York resident and documentary film director Aaron Woolf.

*H/T Naomi Starkman at Civil Eats for always sending along the breaking news, and to Tom Philpott/Grist for the Merrigan CV. Merrigan photo by Mark Morelli. Vilsack photo by AFP/Getty.