Organic foodies love Obama again

They didn't like Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture, but their joy at the No. 2 pick for USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, knows no bounds.

By Andrew Leonard

Published February 24, 2009 7:19PM (EST)

The sustainable, organic, suspicious-of-big-agriculture foodies greeted President Obama's choice of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture with a chorus of boos and frowns of disappointment. Iowa is ethanol country, and Vilsack was considered a Monsanto man, through-and-through. But the decision to appoint Tufts professor Kathleen Merrigan for the No. 2 post at USDA is sparking a completely different reaction.

Pure, unadulterated ecstasy. As tasty-good as a freshly picked organic peach or heirloom tomato. Containing absolutely no high fructose corn syrup and fully compostable!

"Dr. Merrigan is a thrillingly unexpected pick," gushes the Ethicurean.

"This amounts to a major win for organic, sustainable and local food advocates," writes Samuel Fromartz, author of "Organic, Inc.," at his blog, Chewswise.

"In the sustainable-ag community, the reaction has been near euphoric," writes Tom Philpott at Grist. "The activist chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, described Merrigan like this in an e-mail to me: 'Kathleen's incredible ... She's smart, dedicated, and ferocious. We couldn't have a better advocate I don't think. Very big news ...' Several lesser-known sustainable-ag folks echoed that sentiment in e-mails."

Merrigan wrote the Organic Food Production Act -- the law of the land for the organic sector -- as a staffer for Vermont Sen. Leahy all the way back in the 1980s, served as head of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service -- which oversees federal organic policy -- under Clinton, and, writes Fromartz, "even before then, she was involved in sustainable agriculture policy and has been ever since -- in organics, conservation, food access, and small farm issues. While [Michael] Pollan helped put these issues onto the national agenda, people like Merrigan have long been doing the wonky policy work.

For comparison purposes, the last person to serve as deputy secretary of agriculture was Bush appointee Chuck Conner, whose previous job, writes Philpott, was "as a flack for Archer Daniels Midland," the huge agribusiness giant.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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