On a recent beautiful Wednesday evening at the Davis Farmers Market, I had a delightful, wonkish chat on the state of farming and food policy with U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. This chat reminded me why it is so important that President Barack Obama is re-elected and what we’d lose if we returned to a Republican administration.
When thinking of reasons to choose a president, I doubt that many SN&R readers are evaluating Obama’s agricultural policies vs. Mitt Romney’s. Hell, I don’t even know what Romney’s agricultural policy is. Most likely, he has several contradictory agricultural policies. Note: That’s meant to be a joke.
What I do know is that Obama’s agricultural policies have been very different from those of the Bush administration. And those differences are perhaps best symbolized by his choice of Merrigan. Selected by Time Magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Merrigan helped write the USDA’s organic-labeling rules during the last years of the Clinton administration. Over the last three-and-a-half years, she has worked for the Obama administration, supporting sustainable agriculture with her signature Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. This campaign has brought much needed attention to local farmers and organic farmers.
Perhaps you are wondering who President George W. Bush chose as deputy secretary of agriculture? Well, that would be Chuck Conner, the former president of the Corn Refiners Association. As you may guess, Conner had very different priorities. Under Chuck, it was more like a Do Not Know Your Food campaign.
Some people think there’s not much difference between the two political parties. But there’s a huge difference here: One administration appoints the president of the Corn Refiners Association and the other administration appoints the person who wrote the organic-labeling code.
And in chatting with Merrigan—who, by the way, never mentioned Bush’s policies or Conner—I was reminded of the importance of having progressive people in key positions. Both Merrigan and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have presented a very different vision for agriculture. Vilsack and Merrigan have advocated policies to encourage environmentally sound farming, support food-stamp programs, and promote farmers markets and smaller, local farming.
Now, these differences will most likely not be noticed during the presidential campaign. Unlike such hot topics as gay marriage or Romney’s high-school bullying, choosing someone who developed the organic-labeling code to replace the former president of the Corn Refiners Association as the USDA’s deputy secretary will not make Fox News or CNN. But while the choice of Kathleen Merrigan and the hundreds of other impressive Obama appointees may not make the news, it’s still one of the most important reasons why Obama should win the election.