Kathleen Merrigan: Towards a Better U.S. Food Policy

President Obama's choosing Tufts University professor and organic advocate Kathleen Merrigan as the deputy secretary of agriculture has gone a long way towards appeasing sustainable food communities over Tom Vilsack's appointment as USDA head. At the same time, Merrigan's nomination is a strong first stroke towards crafting a better U.S. food policy, emphasis on the first.

Merrigan is expected to have an enormous impact on food labeling standards, particularly for vague, misused terms like "grass fed," "raised without antibiotics," and "naturally raised."  The labeling picture's probably going to get a whole lot clearer now:

"Merrigan, 49, director of the agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University, helped develop the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 as a staffer on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The law created national standards for organic foods and a federal program to accredit them. From 1999 to 2001, Merrigan served as administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the agency's organic program." - Scientific American

merrigan With a PhD in Environmental Planning and Policy from MIT, Merrigan has written a host of papers supporting sustainable agriculture policy, too. Treehugger culled several points from one of them, "Ensuring Comprehensive Organic Livestock Standards," including some specific, detailed guidelines like choosing disease-resistant breeds, allowing animals to reproduce naturally, and ensuring adequate space for animal movement. Restrictions like these should result in stricter, more comprehensible labeling standards that prevent companies from slipping in factory food under the hazy "all-natural" guise.

Merrigan's appointment will mark the first time a sustainable agriculture advocate helps direct the USDA and, consequently, U.S. food policy. It's also a victory for groups like Food Democracy Now, which spearheaded the petition to President Obama to focus on natural food systems and move this country away from industry-focused agriculture.  

The University of Richmond's Steve Nash, though, points to some deeper-rooted problems in the American food supply:

"One cause of these food scares lies in retailers' tendency to push for ever-lower pricing. This puts pressure on suppliers to produce food as cheaply as possible, which ratchets up the temptation to cut corners and game the food-safety inspection process. This model reduces the amount we pay at the supermarket, but possibly at the expense of our health and public safety--which raises the question of whether we're actually paying less.

One of the primary downsides of these cost-cutting measures is the move toward greater centralization of the agriculture industry. The CDC attributes some of the current contamination hazard to "an increasingly centralized food supply," because "food contaminated in production can be rapidly shipped to many states, causing a widespread outbreak." Processing food in larger, centralized plants also puts more people at risk. "With smaller plants, if there is a mistake, the number of people affected is smaller," says Chuck Hassebrook, long-time executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs." - The New Republic

Nash outlines even more problems associated with low-cost, high-volume food production, like placing meat safety under the responsibility of an undertrained workforce and conducting safety inspections under rushed conditions. Plus, Nash says, agricultural fallout in the environment includes everything from soil exhaustion associated with traditional crops to massive greenhouse gas emissions in the livestock industry, and mitigating these issues will be complicated. Some of the solutions rely on unpopular ideas like accepting higher prices for food even in a recession or transforming the American diet into a less meat-intensive one.

If the goal is a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. agricultural landscape of cleaner, healthier food that taxes the air, water, and climate less, it's going to take many more governmental moves like the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan. No less important is the even harder work of changing how Americans eat and buy food.

Related Reading:
Small Farms on the Rise in America
The Wicked Cool World of Organics, Edition 2

1 comment

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Charles M. 110°

This is a great start and I hope it gets enough traction and does not get lobbied to death. But this is just the first step along a road that will take decades.

The investment in the agribusiness machine is huge so you cannot expect this to change within a short timeframe. At best expect a 10-20 year plan.

Putting pressure on producers is one thing, but it is really the consumption patterns that must change. The producers only service consumption. Sure, the FDA has been "trained" by agribusiness to steer consumers in a desirable direction, but it means that consumers will have to be "retrained" first.

For example, the whole system chat generates vast quantities of cheap meat needs to change.First you need to convince people to consume less meat and try to convince them to go for better alternatives. That requires modifications to the consumers, the fast food industry and finally the agribusiness industry.

The current models are locked in at so many levels and correction will only come through a multi-pronged response. Just putting the heat on farmers won't work.

Written in April 2009

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