The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) deals with a lot more than just safely growing plants and raising animals for food. It rules over the Forest Service (which manages almost 300,000 square miles of national land), the Food Stamp Program (which provides food for low-income citizens) and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (which gives advice to farmers).
The USDA is run by the United States Secretary of Agriculture -- currently Ed Schafer, who assumed office in January, just days before a scandal broke following an investigation by the Humane Society into downed cows from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company entering the food supply.
And now, President-elect Obama has a powerful decision in his hands: Who should be the new agriculture secretary?
It's a very big job. In addition to establishing farm policies, enforcing agriculture laws and ensuring a safe food supply, this person is responsible for national nutrition standards, food in school lunchrooms, crop subsidies, organic labeling, disaster relief food distribution, cropland conservation and fighting hunger.
The Democratic governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, is on Obama's short list. But he supports ethanol subsidies. As the Economist notes, "America's use of corn to make ethanol biofuel, which can then be blended with petrol to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, has already driven up the price of corn. As more land is used to grow corn rather than other food crops, such as soy, their prices also rise. And since corn is used as animal feed, the price of meat goes up, too. The food supply, in other words, is being diverted to feed America's hungry cars."
The use of corn-based ethanol pleases the oil companies, as it's an additive to gasoline. Ultimately, corn-based ethanol does not help America get off its oil addiction. And it's not actually a green technology: Producing it consumes as much energy as it emits when burned.
Tom Buis, the president of the National Farms Union, is another top contender. But his focus on family farming (he said that Obama has "a rural vision"), while quite admirable, does not translate easily into desperately needed regulations on big agribusiness -- where the majority of country's current food problems lie.
Also being considered is Charles Stenholm, a 13-term House Democrat from Texas, who helped usher in the damaging Farm Bill, which gave huge subsidies to the nation's wealthiest factory farmers, awarding a whopping $2.8 million which helped corn farmers fuel American obesity through the production of corn syrup.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a Democratic South Dakota congresswoman, is also in the running. But she's an agribusiness insider who, as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, has sent fat federal checks back to her home state and will likely be extremely cautious before championing serious farm policy reform.
Mr Obama should look outside of the political sphere for this critical position and give serious consideration to sustainable-food advocate Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," a book that traces the journey of four separate meals -- each produced through a different food-production system -- from their origins to the dinner table. A central text of the "locavore" movement, it was named by the New York Times as one of the best non-fiction books of 2006.
Mr Pollan has the correct view of America's food system: Too dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, it can't last much longer the way it is.
More importantly, Mr Pollan, who is also the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is aware that food exists at the nexus of three of the nation's most important issues: health care, energy independence and climate change.
In fact, Mr Pollan was approached by an Obama staffer about his insightful open letter to the President-elect about food policy, "Farmer in Chief," published last month in the New York Times.
In the letter, Mr Pollan cites that four of the top ten killers in America are caused by diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. He also reminds us that "every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact." The production and distribution of food does not necessarily have to spew millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And our food doesn't have to make us fat.
Considering President-elect Obama's mandate of change, Michael Pollan is the right choice for the next United States Secretary of Agriculture.
Warning that "the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close," Mr Pollan advocates a "sun-food agenda" that involves an entire overhaul of the food system and the development of local-based food production.
Now that's change we can believe in.
- Read Michael Pollan's editorial "Farmer in Chief" (New York Times, October 9, 2008)
- Sign a Humane Society letter to President-elect Barack Obama urging him to appoint a Secretary of Agriculture who takes animal protection and consumer issues as seriously as issues confronting farm producers
- Big Fish, Little Fish (November 13, 2008)
- The Ones That Got Away: "Organic" Fish (November 9, 2008)
- California Passes Landmark Anti-Cruelty Act (November 7, 2008)
- If We Really Are What We Eat, Most of Us Are A Bit Disturbing (October 17, 2008)
- Goodbye, Fish and Chips (October 12, 2008)
- Over a Century Later, A Sustainable Crop Experiment Thrives (October 6, 2008)
- Californians to Vote on Landmark Anti-Cruelty Act (September 22, 2008)
- Twice As Nice: Organic Wine (August 31, 2008)
- Understanding A Powerful Crop Virus (August 22, 2008)
- Celebrities Call G8 Delays in Aid "A Disgrace" (July 9, 2008)
- Secret Report Says Biofuels Caused Food Crisis (July 8, 2008)
- The Shrimp Effect: Does Eating Shrimp in Canada Kill People in Myanmar? (May 8, 2008)
- Bee Colony Collapse Affecting US Food Supply (April 26, 2008)
- Biofuels Fuel Food Crisis (April 15, 2008)
- Banned Pesticides Killing Birds (April 10, 2008)