President Obama, Your Secretary of Agriculture Choice is The Most Important of All: Here's Why

Dear President-elect Obama,

After a long, hard and contentious campaign you’ve won the Presidency of the United States. Congratulations. Take a moment to enjoy your success. Ok, that was long enough. Now let’s down to business.

You well know that you have a long hard road ahead of you, but your first order of business is to choose a cabinet that is strong, thoughtful and will move this country in the right direction. In my opinion, and in the opinions of many people like me, administration environmental jobs should a top order of business. Our crumbling economy will not matter if we cannot breath our air, drink our water, or eat our food. Relieving the credit crunch won’t make a difference if rates of obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease continue to rise. Keeping people in their homes, empowering people to buy new cars will become meaningless unless we fix the food system, the water system, and limit the spread of untested genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

That is why I am calling out to you to take a good look at who you appoint as Secretary of Energy, Head Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Secretary of Interior, Secretary of Agriculture and possibly the new position, Climate Change Czar — or make this a function of the Department of Homeland Defense.

Of all the cabinet level posts you will fill, there is one that is usually a second thought, but in my opinion is as important as State, Treasury and Defense — the Secretary of Agriculture. Our food system is in dire need of a change and the right person might be able to help begin the overhaul necessary.

The Secretary of Agriculture oversees food safety and sets farm policy.  He/she makes recommendations to Congress on which crops should be subsidized, how agricultural laws are enforced, crop-land conservation, and setting the nations nutritional standards and even organic labeling. They also oversee our food stamp program, food distribution during disaster relief efforts, the US Forest Service and the food that is fed to our children in school. That’s a big job.

I have read that former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack is on the short list for this position. From the corn state, Vilsack strongly supports ethanol subsidies. He believes that he has changed the corn fields of Iowa into energy fields. To me that sounds like a shift in use, not better agriculture or energy policy. As he stated in an op-ed in the Argus Leader, “If you drive across Iowa today, you will see a changing landscape marked by new ethanol and biofuel production plants and wind farms. As a state, we became more economically, environmentally and energy secure.”

Today, Iowa farmers are still hurting the soil and water by using petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers. Furthermore, these farmers have shifted corn from feeding the world to ethanol production, which, as we all know, is not helping increase our independence from foreign oil. But with all his good intentions, former Governor Vilsak is too much of an insider to create really change.

I have also read that your short list includes Tom Buis, the President of the National Farms Union and the Congresswoman for South Dakota Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. These two are also agriculture “insiders” who are in the pocket of industrial agriculture who might working in the best interest of the farmers they represent, mostly corporate farming, but neither are strong enough or creative enough to achieve real change we need in the system.

Then there is former Congressman Charles Stenholm (D-TX). Charlie is a conservative Democrat that joined the Republicans to kill a bill that would have prevented sick cattle that are unable to walk from entering the US food supply. (Remember the video released by the Humane Society of downer cows?) While part of the House Agriculture Committee he received more than $800,000 in PAC contributions and took numerous trips sponsored by agriculture lobbyist groups. After leaving Congress he became a lobbyist for the agriculture and food industry. Again, not someone who is going to change our system for the better.

So by now President-elect Obama you must say, well then who?

There is one man out there who is not already in politics, who has examined our foods system from farm to table, and who understands the impact it plays on our environment, our economy and our health. He has intimate knowledge of not only farmers, but also diaries, feed-lots, and food processors. He is not a Washington insider and to top it off he has already laid out a plan for tackling the issues we face. His plan takes into account the impact agriculture has on our climate, energy dependence, the healthcare system, foreign and trade policies and national security.

As states in his own words:

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. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

The scribe of this plan called the Sun-Food Agenda is Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism and author.

President-elect Obama, I urge you to read Professor Pollan’s plan as laid out in an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Farmer In Chief” and stick with what you have been saying throughout your campaign; that America needs real change.

I urge you to consider Michael Pollan for the Secretary of Agriculture. (Or at least consult with him to mine his knowledge on the issues to make the best choice possible for the position.)

Pollan’s plans are not liberal.  They are not conservative.  They are what is best for America.  And most importantly they are achievable.

As Pollan states:

[The] sun-food agenda promises to win support across the aisle. It builds on America’s agrarian past, but turns it toward a more sustainable, sophisticated future. It honors the work of American farmers and enlists them in three of the 21st century’s most urgent errands: to move into the post-oil era, to improve the health of the American people and to mitigate climate change. Indeed, it enlists all of us in this great cause by turning food consumers into part-time producers, reconnecting the American people with the American land and demonstrating that we need not choose between the welfare of our families and the health of the environment — that eating less oil and more sunlight will redound to the benefit of both.

This is a new era for America and Michael Pollan may just be The Change We Need.

Yes We Can!


Green Luvin’

About Melissa Goldberg


  1. Well said, Melissa! I couldn’t agree more. I have so much hope that Obama will put people in top positions who actually care, instead of industry lobbyists, lawyers and advocates that are just foxes guarding the hen house. Change is coming, indeed.

  2. Thank you! I am so glad to learn that I am not the only person asking that, if Obama stands for change, why his short list is dominated by the same old, same old. How about somebody from one of the coastal states as the Secretary of Agriculture, eh? I don’t know whether Pollan is the right person (or whether he would be interested), but it is a wonderful dream to think that either he or somebody like him would be in charge.

    But, of course, the Sec. of Ag. can only do what Congress lets him or her do. Ultimately, the change that is needed in agricultural policy has to come out of Congress. And yet, at each election, the same pro-industrial agriculture types keep getting re-elected to the Senate. Unfortunately, that is the reality.

  3. Your blog has a lot of potential for success in the blogging world. I wouldn’t wanna miss any updates. Care to exchange link with me and have your blog’s link posted on my blog so that others may know about it? Will look forward to receiving your reply. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for writing about the shortlist of sec of agriculture – President-elect Obama has read Pollan’s piece. We wrote about it here:

  5. Paula — Thank you so much for pointing out that Obama has read the Pollan piece. I am glad we will have a president that reads! But more important that President-elect Obama has learned Pollan’s plan and hopefully will consider these ideas in his policies and choices for the environmental and energy positions in his administration.

    On another note, I love Civil Eats. Thanks for introducing it to me. Do you have a RSS feed?


  6. To add to Melissa’s insights, I recommend a wonderful piece in WorldChanging, titled ‘To the Next U.S. President — 100 Words in 100 Days’. You’ll find it here:

    There are powerful responses from Hunter Lovins, Eric Corey Freed, Bill McKibbon, Kenny Ausubel, and many others.

    Let Barack Obama and all of us be inspired by these influencers.


  7. Dear Melissa,

    Very well said. I really enjoy your blog. It’s so good. I love your passion, and I love how you speak …Keep up the good work! I sure hope that President-elect Obama realizes there’s many more people interested in the safety of our agriculture and does something about it.

  8. Hi Melissa, loveyour post, and thanks for turning me on to that NYTimes article… we’re trying to re-introduce farming in a big way in Rockland County, NY. We’re hosting a big event on November 19th in Pomona.

  9. Marjorie Foster says:

    Thank you for helping to get this most important message out.

  10. Pingback: New Yorkers and Food Politics | Only Hybrids

  11. Pingback: New Yorkers and Food Politics

  12. Pingback: New Yorkers and Food Politics | Barack Obama

  13. I would hope that Obama would consider this position with the highest priority.

    We all have to eat.

  14. I would like to point out one thing about ethanol that is often overlooked. After the ethanol is removed there is a by product that is an excellent cattle and hog feed. Ethanol doesn’t take away from food as bad as portrayed.

  15. Dear Melissa,
    Thank you for posting this blog! I hope it does get to the President-Elect… and that he reads it! Americans need to take up lawns and plant native plants too! Best wishes!!!
    Sinclair & Kirsten

  16. Dear Writer: You have great points! I agree with your thoughts on agriculture in our country. I do believe however that you are greatly mistaken about one of your “shortlists” pointed out in your blog. Being from a small populated state whose number one economy is agriculture, I too am very interested in who President Elect Obama chooses (I was an avid supporter of him all along).

    I grew up on a small family farm in North Dakota. We have no hired hands, just my mother, my father, and my siblings before we moved to college. I would like you to take a closer look at the President of National Farmers Union, Tom Buis. You are correct that the NFU is a lobbyist organization, but where you are mistaken is in your labels of them as supporters of industrial agriculture and corporate farming.

    I have been a member of the North Dakota Farmers Union my whole life, and recently worked in D.C. for the National Farmers Union. I urge you to check out their website. Please click on “About NFU” and then “Policy.” This is a book written by the thousands of family farmers across the United States that NFU represents. Notice on the bottom left hand side of the main page is a feature called “BUY FROM A FAMILY FARM.” This is where members (who are all family farmers) can list their farm products online to sell to a national community.

    Farmers Union is an avid supporter of farm grown fuels to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, they have lobbied time and time again for decreased use of corporate farming and in the inhumane treatment of animals, and boast a sense of pride in their members ideals of being stewards of the land in conservation.

    Its easy to think that lobbyists in D.C. are radicals, but I guess everyone is a radical depending on where you stand on an issue. I just wanted to direct you to some information about them before you make a judgment, I know that you will find striking similarities in their policies and how you feel about agriculture in our country.

    Sincerely yours,

  17. You make some great points. Obama has a lot to live up to. The Delta Institute, an organization that helps rebuild communities through green initiatives, recently wrote up a summary of the Obama campaign’s promised environmental policies here:

    Who he chooses in his cabinet will ultimately decide which of these promises come to fruition and which get left behind.

  18. Too little has been heard on this very important topic so far.

    Additional Info. Tom Vilsack wrote part of Iowa’s notorious hog factory bill, House File 519. I think he wrote the section giving nuisance lawsuit protection to hog factories. He’s a “Farm Bureau” (endorsed) Democrat. He got better by the end of his time. Probably he doesn’t know federal farm issues well. Probably he is more influencable than most, by Obama, the public.

    The correction for Tom Buis is good but needs qualification. Iowa Farmers Union and NFU were excellent on corporate farming issues through 2001, except they switched sides when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin did, following Harkin. That is they switched from opposition to the lowering and elimination of price floors (ie. Reagan, Clinton/Gingrich Contract for America) to a greened up version of 1996 Freedom to Farm (no price floors). This holds for 2002 and 2008.

    Correction. “Iowa farmers … have shifted corn from feeding the world to ethanol production.” The real history is that the U.S., by lowering and eliminating price floors, dumped our USDA “program commodities” (main subsidized crops) onto world markets at below costs for a quarter century. This massive export of below cost grains did NOT feed the world, it drove their farmers (and economies) into such poverty that they couldn’t even buy below cost foods. US Farmers lost money every year, 1981-2006 (except 1996) (8 crop total, vs full costs, without subsidies, USDA-ERS, and lost with subsidies for crops/years studied). Ethanol helped as one factor raising prices and ending dumping (fall 06-fall 08). Long term that helps end poverty and starvation. Ethanol was chosen for farmers as a side investment for this very reason.

    We need a Sec. of Ag who will restore price floors and supply management as a way to end subsidies, making corporate agribusiness pay above cost, and ending multibillion dollar below cost gains for Tyson & Smithfield. This was the New Deal (price floors, no subsidies) and economic stimulus (Steagall Amendment 1941). Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Sec of State (formerly IATP) is best.

  19. I think that John Salazar (D-CO) is the best choice. We sent a farmer to congress how about put him in the white house.

  20. I would like to see Obama read Francis Moore Lappe’s books–the one I read in college was Diet For a Small Planet. Her endorsement of whomever you pick, Obama, would be truly great!

    If you are up to it, please encourage our people to base their meals around plants and downsize on animal products. A plant-based diet emphasis can help feed our people and people around the world and cut down dramatically on methane greenhouse gases, which are more destructive than CO2. We need to encourage people thinking of animal meat as a condiment rather than a main course. We need to think of ethical animal husbandry and encourage buying from local farms and knowing what our animals eat and knowing they are out in the open air.

    Did you see in the Organic Consumer website that France recently found that harmful (Melomine?) substance from China in even their Organic Chicken? It came in with the soy. They test. Our USDA won’t even allow organic farmers to test for Mad Cow Disease, even though they want to and it is a cheap test.

  21. Michael Pollan’s ideas are health and hope not only for the US but for the world. With him Obama can inspire, bring relief to fear and set the sane example.

  22. You are very right about Obama needing to look to the outside for heads of AG, EPA, Energy etc. However, appointing yet another academic is not the way to go. In the name of greenhouse gases the EPA passed a regulation that hinders U.S. livestock farmers in the name of the Clean Water Act. The energy department jumped on using bio-fuels instead of fossil fuels. The department of agriculture just creates problems and a need for lobbiests. Pollan as secretary for any one of those departments and anyone with similar experience would be detrimental. A writer/professor with no real hands on agriculture or energy experience? Oh boy. The secretaries of agriculture & energy should be someone who has actual experience and knowledge of how modern farms work, the issues they face and a knowledge of current legislation and tax law. Also someone who is not going to enact regulations with biased research from the environmental lobbyists. The administrator for the EPA should become the president of the EPA followed by the EPA ceasing to exist as a government agency. Over regulation will be the end of this country especially when it is done without overwhelming amounts of knowledge.

    P.S. Bio-fuels burn faster than regular fuel which means it is more expensive and does nothing to help the environment. Oh and methane? People produce it too. Probably more with the over population issue and need to keep up production levels while engineering longer lives.

  23. thank you very much for your fine piece, and for all those who thoughtfully commented. indeed, it is that important of a position–although even before becoming an ex-pat, i’ve always hoped some president-elect would call upon wendell berry for the post. cheers.

  24. Brad:

    The by-product of ethanol production is not at all an “excellent cattle and hog feed.” While it is true that hogs eat a varied diet, cattle in particular were NEVER meant to ingest grain as a regular diet and their bodies are not at all evolved to digest this substance.

    It is shown that meat and dairy from grain-fed cattle lacks the vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that make these products great for our bodies, and often make us sick. We already have an extreme and unhealthy abundance of omega-6 fats in our diet because we ingest SO much corn (from the corn oil and corn syrup found in almost every processed food and from dairy and meat from grain-fed cows).

    Not to mention that feeding cows grain instead of grazing them properly on grass is incredibly destructive to the health of the cattle and harmful to the environment.

    We need to stop feeding cows grain just as much as we need to protect organic sustainable growing methods or stop pollution from chemical residues.

  25. Roger Fortin says:

    You make a lot of good points. What the farmer’s need is to go back to the days when they recieved parity pricing. If the farmers don’t recieve a cost of production there won’t be any small farms to supply to the local communities.
    Parity Pricing: In any working equation, raw material production (food) prices have to reflect the cost of production plus a profit in ratio to all cost factors. To the price structure have to be added to the cost of handling in terms of transportation, processing, and capital costs so in the end the consumer price level reflects parity.

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