The O'Brien Retort: Hope For A "Secretary Of Food"?

(a Q & A with our favorite Iowa farminist, sustainable ag advocate Denise O’Brien (pictured right, with me), who sets down her spade to take up our questions about all things ag):

kat: Progressive foodies have been vigorously debating the "who should be Obama's Secretary of Agriculture?" question for several months now. There's been a movement to draft Michael Pollan, who has no interest in the job, and a letter to President-elect Obama, signed by nearly ninety luminaries in the good food movement galaxy, imploring him to buck the Big Ag/biotech brigade in favor of some more sustainably-minded candidates. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof weighed in on the subject this week with a terrific column explaining why this appointment is so critical.

This is all well and good, but we want to know what you think. Big Ag had a big fit back in 2006 when you ran for Iowa's Secretary of Ag and nearly beat your Republican opponent, a conventional commodity crop farmer. You went on to advise John Edwards about food and ag policy. What are you hoping for from this new administration?

O'Brien: As a farmer of thirty plus years, I am intrigued by all of the emails, blogs and websites devoted to the selection of the United States Secretary of Agriculture. My mind swirls with all sorts of fantasies of what a progressive “Secretary of Food” could do for our country. But alas, today as I check out the latest candidates, I am brought back to the unfortunate reality of our current situation - the United States, just like our little state of Iowa, is owned solely by big agribusiness interests with the American Farm Bureau Federation leading the corporate interest pack. It has often baffled me how an insurance company has been able to “speak for the farmers” when they are certainly not a farm organization.

My first introduction to national farm policy was in the early 1980’s when the farm sector of our economy marched headlong into the “farm crisis’. Few people realize that we had an incredible restructuring of the agricultural system. In fact, from my experience, I would say that is when agri business took firm hold. Farmers were told that farming is a business not a way of life when in reality it is both. There were suicides, a rise in domestic violence, foreclosures, auctions – such an upheaval that rural areas entered a chronic depression.

These things happened before there was a food movement, before people started asking questions about where food comes from and what is in our food. They happened before the introduction of genetically modified organisms, bovine growth hormones and the concentration of animals in confined feeding operations.

So where does that bring me today with my ear glued to the radio and my eyes glued to the computer screen waiting anxiously for the announcement that I am sure to be disappointed in? It brings me to what I have been taught for thirty years, that grassroots organizing is the way to get things done. Why do you think that the food movement has come to where it is today? It isn’t because someone, say Michael Pollan (not to pick on you Michael), woke up one day and said “this isn’t right.” No, it is because people for the past thirty years have been developing strategy, asking the right questions and implementing plans to create the “food movement”.

Sure, it would be swell to have a person at the head of the Department of Agriculture who understands what the food movement is about, but seriously, that would be an incredible leap for corporate interests. Food justice is just not a concept that sector can even begin to grasp.

I have had firsthand experience taking on corporate ag and although I was not successful in my bid for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, my friends all tell me I scared the sh… out of them! What this indicates is that we all must continue to work for food democracy. In my humble opinion, food democracy is about economic democracy. That is where we need to be heading.

This is so refreshing in

This is so refreshing in light of today's announcement. Tom Vilsack is going to have to contend with the 56,000 of us who signed the petition, plus all of those activists who had yet to. It is our job to push the folks at the top to listen to reason on the issues.

Thanks for this post!

excellent article written

excellent article written here on Denise and our food and how Iowa is. Thankyou for your work. Kevin