cows in field

What Obama Means for Organic

There are hints that his ag secretary Tom Vilsack may have an open mind to alternative viewpoints.

By Samuel Fromartz

In the weeks during the transition, President-Elect Obama has made it clear he will govern from the “pragmatic” center.

Despite rumblings on the progressive front that his “change” mantra is falling short, he seems to be set on building coalitions so that policy changes will be achievable.

In the agricultural realm, there is no reason to believe this measured approach will differ.
As Kim Severson of the New York Times wrote this past December: “Although Mr. Obama has proposed changes in the nation’s farm and rural policies and emphasizes the connection between diet and health, there is nothing to indicate he has a special interest in a radical makeover of the way food is grown and sold.”

This was clear in his appointment Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, as agriculture secretary. Vilsack has been supportive of genetic engineering and a proponent of ethanol fuels – two issues that raised red flags with sustainable advocates, organic farmers and even hunger activists worried about what rising corn demand would do to the price of food.

Still, it would be virtually impossible to imagine that a governor from Iowa would clamp down on GMO seed or ethanol fuels, given how central they are to the state’s conventional farmers.
Still, there were hints among those who have worked with Vilsack that he has an open mind to alternative viewpoints.

Denise O’Brien, an organic farmer who ran for secretary of agriculture in Iowa in 2006, bested her Democratic opponent in the primary. As a result, Vilsack backed her in the election.

Sadly, she lost, but in public comments she had this to say about Vilsack.

“Over the years the Governor’s office was open for a number of meetings relating to trade, prior to the Seattle WTO meeting; for meetings to solve the farm financial crisis that emerges every few years; and for meetings developing food policy,” she wrote. “During Vilsack’s administration we were in his office more than all of the past twenty years of farm activism.”

She went on to describe him as a centrist in the mold of Bill Clinton (and perhaps Obama, too).
“The best thing to do was to keep talking and to keep exposing the governor to a more progressive line of thinking,” she wrote. “We resigned ourselves to the fact that our expectations of a Democratic Governor were exactly that, expectations and that there was still a lot of work to do.”

The approach might be applied to Obama, who clearly has an open mind on food and farming issues. He is well-versed in the arguments writers like Michael Pollan has made on the connection between farm subsidies, corn and soybean production, cheap processed food and obesity.

But coming from Illinois, where he was also a strong supporter of ethanol, he has shown few signs that he is willing to bring his “change mantra” to these central pillars of industrial agriculture.
One area that could effect agriculture is Obama’s global warming policy, if carbon emissions are taxed or if they must be offset.

Farmers, especially organic farmers, are a source of carbon sequestration, since plants soak up carbon dioxide and turn it into organic matter.

But given the uncertainty over a carbon emissions laws, it’s impossible to say how that will play out in agricultural policy.

As for organic food, it’s hard to see any immediate and substantive change in policy.

Although sustainable advocates are pushing for a symbolic organic garden on the White House lawn, it’s unlikely that will loosen purse strings or ease regulatory battles over at the USDA.

If there is one thing the organic community has learned, the regulatory process is a slow one that takes an extreme commitment of time and resources to get things done.

As in the past, the strongest driver of organic farm policy will continue to be the market itself. If more people buy organic food, as they have been, the profile and political importance of the sector will grow in Washington (and perhaps a White House garden would further that cause).

In short, the market will be the carrot that leads the political horse, not the other way around.
As sales of organic food grow, then policy makers like Vilsack will pay increasing attention – and perhaps, the especially tough regulatory issues will get the attention they deserve.

And one way to make that happen would be to have an organic adviser in the secretary’s office, serving as a liaison to the National Organic Standards Board, the National Organic Program, the organic food industry – and yes, to farmers, too.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc.; Natural Foods and How They Grew (Harcourt 2006). His web-site is at and he blogs at