Paul Willis, hog farmer in Iowa on a diversified farm and manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company
A group of farmers, chefs and policy advocates called "Food Democracy Now" have submitted a letter to Obama’s transition team urging him to take on industrialized agriculture and promote a more sustainable policy. The letter urges the President-elect to nominate a Secretary of Agriculture who will advocate for independent family farms, nutrition, environmental protection, food workers’ rights and animal welfare. [includes rush transcript]
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We turn now to the related issue of food and sustainable agriculture in this country. A group of farmers and chiefs and policy advocates who are calling themselves “Food Democracy Now” recently submitted a letter to Obama’s transition team urging him to take on industrialized agriculture and promote a more sustainable policy. The letter urges the President-elect to nominate a Secretary of Agriculture who will advocate for independent family farms, nutrition, environmental protection, food workers’ rights and animal welfare.
The letter names six possible candidates to the post, was circulated online at fooddemocracynow.org, where it has garnered nearly 50,000 signatures. Early signatories are our guest Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Wes Jackson, Anna Lappe, Bill Niman, Wendell Berry, Winona LaDuke and others.
Paul Willis is a hog farmer from Iowa, manager of the Niman Ranch Pork Company, one of the initiators of the letter, joining us now from Thornton, Iowa.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Paul. Explain what you mean. Why a Secretary of Food and Agriculture, as opposed to just Secretary of Agriculture, which is what we’ve got now?
Yeah, I’ll try to explain it. Really, I think we’ve lost sight of really what this is all about. And, you know, agriculture should be a vehicle that provides, you know, food and well-being for our population as a whole. And the emphasis in the past has been a lot on commodity crops. There have been subsidies on — commodity crops are really based on volume as opposed to quality, and many of them are not, you know, consumed directly as food.
And so, I think it’s important to think about farmers. First of all, we need more farmers, and we need people on the land that can produce food that can be purchased locally. Not everything could be purchased locally. There are certainly things that are moved from one part of the country to another. But we have, you know, school lunch programs that have been somewhat pathetic as to what our children are eating. And we just need a system that can deliver higher quality to our people.
And what role does a Secretary of Agriculture play? What role have they played in the past? What does it mean to talk about industrial agriculture versus family farmers?
Well, I think a classic is to go back to Earl Butts, who went around saying we should we should plant fence row to fence row. And that was a time when we plowed up a lot of marginal land and put it into corn and other commodity crops. And we did, you know, head down this path of huge amounts of commodities. And that was his sort of vision of what prosperity and what was good for the country at the time. And I think we’re still suffering from that particular Secretary of Agriculture from that era, even though that was thirty years ago. I think he took office in ’71.
So the Secretary of Agriculture can be a spokesman for a better food system and talk about what kind of, really, food system we would like to see for the twenty-first century. I mean, there are certain parameters that the secretary has to work within, but there are also some flexibilities, as well.
Paul Willis, who would you like to see as Secretary of Agriculture? Would you like to see the name and position change to Food and Agriculture?
Well, personally, I would. I mean, I think leaving "food" out of it, I think, is bad.
And is there a person you have in mind?
Well, any one of the people we listed there for a secretary, any one of these people would be fantastic. And I know most of the people personally on the list.
Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the USDA and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture. Chuck Hassebrook, he’s executive director of Center for Rural Affairs —
We’re going to have to leave it there right now, because we’re ending the show. I see on the list Sarah Vogel, two-term Commissioner of Agriculture in North Dakota; Mark Ritchie, current Minnesota Secretary of State; Neil Hamilton over at Drake University in Iowa; and Frank Kirschenmann in Pocantico Hills, New York.
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