|The Easier the Battle, The Better the Fight
One alarming thing I've noticed about our USDA (and most likely other agencies as well) is that they like to pick the battles that they can win. I know, that's supposed to be the smart thing to do. But it can have disastrous consequences. It can result in government promoting non-solutions to serious problems so that they can appear to be doing something without actually offending business.
The saddest one I can think of is the case of "Mad Sheep" (a book by Linda Faillace about her family's fight with the USDA). The Faillace family was extremely knowledgeable about mad cow disease because they lived in the UK during the mad cow scare. Linda worked in a laboratory studying mad cow, actually. Her husband was an animal expert with a PhD, although mad cow was not his area of specialty.
When they came back to the U.S. they did a bunch of research and determined that they had a fantastic business opportunity if they could import European breeds of sheep into the U.S. that were able to produce 10-25x as much milk as American breeds. They worked with the USDA and Senator Leahy and legally imported some sheep. The business took off - breeding and selling sheep, milking their sheep, making and selling cheese, and teaching cheese-making classes.
When the mad cow shit really hit the fan in the U.S., the Clinton USDA was looking to "do something" in a very visible way to protect American beef exports. But the beef lobby is powerful. The sheep lobby is less powerful. But - even better - what if they just took on imported sheep? They could just fight the Faillace family while leaving the rest of the cow and sheep people alone, AND have the appearance of taking swift and decisive action to keep mad cow out of our country.
The Faillace's sheep did NOT have mad cow disease and the American government (under both Clinton and Bush) knew it too. They had over 400 negative test results from the Faillace's sheep to prove it. The sheep didn't even have scrapie, the sheep version of mad cow. And the Faillaces had provided the government with feed records for the flocks that their sheep came from, proving that they did not eat anything that might have made them high risk.
Meanwhile, the rendering industry here in the U.S. was chugging along at full speed. Slaughterhouse waste, road kill, dead pets, and more get cooked up and turned into animal feed products. Yum. It was this practice that gave rise to the mad cow epidemic in the UK. The US dragged its feet about putting an end to it here, and then when they DID do something, they left a ton of loopholes. You can feed a cow to a pig and a pig to a cow. You can feed a cow to a chicken and chicken litter (including dropped bits of food) to a cow. These loopholes STILL exist.
But what's the easy fight to pick? The USDA murdered each and every last one of the Faillace's sheep. Then they banned any private testing for mad cow and made sure to test such a small number of cows for mad cow that it's virtually worthless. So voila, we can boast that we haven't found any mad cow in our country (*almost... about 3 cows have been found now).
The Battles We NEED To Fight
An Obama Ag Secretary needs to be willing to face the most important issues head on, regardless of the size of the battle. I'm not advocating for ignoring the political realities here, and having some sort of Clinton-gays-in-the-miliary debacle. Be smart about it, but be willing to fight for what's right. Here's where we need to go:
1. Slow down the lines in slaughterhousees: For food safety, for worker safety, and for animal rights. You've got a case where live cows are sometimes being cut up and skinned alive and guess what - they kick! Workers get hurt. The lines need to move slow enough for them to be effectively rendered unconscious (if not entirely dead) FIRST. That's the law, and it should also be what we enforce.
2. More testing, less trusting: Why is it that people can actually DIE from something they bought at the store that was supposedly safe to eat? Whether it's E. coli, salmonella, mad cow, or melamine, this is ridiculous. A recent poll by Consumers Union found that 2/3 of Americans would be supportive of the FDA doing monthly inspections of the food supply. Clearly, this is a signal that the food safety problems of the Bush administration are something we're all concerned about.
3. School Food Should Be Healthy: No brainer, right? There's a load of stuff to be addressed here, and it will actually be debated in Congress in the next year. For some background on the issue, I recommend Mother Jones. Currently the USDA has no ability to get vending machines and other junk out of schools even if it wanted to. That must change.
4. Factory Farms Should Be Regulated (or Outlawed?): I, for one, see no need for even having these enormous polluting operations in our country. But whether you get rid of them or just regulate the shit out of them, SOMETHING needs to be done. Obama already said he's going to do something about factory farms, but will it be enough? Food safety, animal rights, the health of human food, and the environment are all at stake here - and each in a very major way.
5. Agriculture Can and SHOULD Be a Solution to Global Warming, Not a Cause: There's a way to grow our food organically, boost yield, AND sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Studies are underway to determine if this also makes the food more nutritious but it's a virtual guarantee. We CAN do this - and fairly easily - all it requires is a government commitment to making it happen. Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, and other major companies are going to lose some business if we do this. Will the Obama administration be willing to have that fight?
These are just a few of the things I'm looking for from Obama's pick for Ag secretary and his other appointments in the USDA (and FDA and EPA). But a person who believes that toxic chemicals and pollution are necessary for food production and corporate profit will not be willing to ahve any of these fights. A person who believes that there's a certain amount of acceptable risk of unsafe food required if companies are going to make a profit won't have these fights. And a person who does not understand the vital role living soil plays in every part of life on this planet will never even dream of having these fights.
So, Obama, what will it be? Are you with us, or are you with Monsanto?
UPDATE: A friend reminded me about the importance of GMOs in the next administration. GMOs are an incredibly destructive technology and appointing a GMO-friendly SecAg would be a very bad idea.