Will Obama bring change to agriculture?

A group of prominent foodies urge a badly needed shift in agricultural policy -- but they shouldn't hold their breath waiting.

Published December 5, 2008 6:45PM (EST)

Quick: Name the secretary of agriculture!

Can you do it? Until I checked just now, I thought it was Ann Veneman. Turns out that was two secretaries ago. She left in 2005. (It’s currently former North Dakota Gov.  Ed Schafer.)

Agriculture is the policy area with possibly the biggest gap between importance and attention. Its ramifications are simply huge. In brief, the way we currently operate retards development in poor countries, makes us obese and sick and contributes a large share of our carbon output. Yet the issue is decidedly unsexy, and the job of agriculture secretary is often a token post for a Farm Belt politician, who presides over a department largely interested in the interests of agribusiness.

But there is a group of public figures who’ve been trying, for several years, to make it cool to pay attention to how deeply screwed up our agriculture policy is. Most prominent among them, of course, is Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food." Earlier this week, Pollan, along with 90 other prominent advocates of agricultural reform, sent a letter to Barack Obama (who had acknowledged reading some of Pollan's work not long before) urging him to break with tradition and name an agriculture secretary interested in reform. Pollan and the other signatories, including Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," NYU professor Marion Nestle and Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse and godmother of California cuisine, even offered some names:

  1. Gus Schumacher, former under secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services and former Massachusetts commissioner of agriculture.
  2. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.
  3. Sarah Vogel, former commissioner of agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.
  4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, N.Y.
  5. Mark Ritchie, Minnesota secretary of state, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Gov. Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
  6. Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman chair of law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

Of course, all this raises a question: If the policy’s so rotten, why haven’t we changed it already? The quick answer is that farm states exercise disproportionate control over the political process. They’re overrepresented in the Electoral College, in the Senate and, most notoriously, in the presidential nomination process. In Congress, it tends to be farm-state members who seek seats on the Agriculture Committee  to look out for farmers back home, while urban members don't do the same to look out for the eaters in their constituencies. On top of all that, people and PACs associated with agribusiness gave over $56 million in donations to federal candidates in 2008. That probably buys a fair chunk of influence, enough that Obama might not be able to -- or perhaps not even want to -- overcome what will surely be enormous pressure to keep the status quo intact.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama War Room