Thursday, December 11, 2008

How about secretary of food, not just agriculture?

The next secretary of agriculture should actually be the secretary of food, and at least two Republicans who held the job agree, columnist Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times. that would signal a "move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars."

Kristof argues that "the Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school-lunch programs, exacerbating our national crisis with diabetes and obesity." He notes that former secretaries John Block and Ann Veneman said recently that USDA should be renamed to include "food" in the name and put it first.

Kristof quotes University of California journalism professor Michael Pollan, who has written some challenging books about food and farming: “We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food. . . . Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”

Kristof notes that he grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., and "One of my regrets is that my kids don’t have the chance to grow up on a farm as well. Yet the Agriculture Department doesn’t support rural towns like Yamhill; it bolsters industrial operations that have lobbying clout. The result is that family farms have to sell out to larger operators, undermining small towns." Well, USDA does have a large Rural Development operation, but non-farm rural interests want it to be larger, and more focused on helping truly rural, needy communities. (Read more)

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