Will Obama's Ag Sec'y serve up the same old crap?

Mrs. R. and I tend to favor organic produce, just on general principles. It's a bit more expensive but compared to eating out it's nothing and we aren't such volume consumers that we can't make it up by my buying one less book a month. And while Obama's many of Obama's cabinet picks have gotten good marks, some haven't. One of the most important for consumers (and for public health) is the Secretary of Agriculture, and his nominee, Iowa's tom Vilsack, is a lousy choice. Honest advocates of sustainable agriculture are particularly dismayed, although you might not know it by looking at some sites billing themselves as organic food advocates.

The Organic Trade Association is a case in point. They are what their name implies: a trade association. But aren't they advocates for the good guys?

There are now two dueling sites by two very different (but similarly named) organizations. Organic Consumers Association [OCA] has launched Stop Vilsack, and Organic Trade Association [OTA] (and others, including a top Vilsack aid) replied with Support Vilsack... and included a page trashing OCA. What's going on here? (Jill Richardson, La Vida Locavore)

OCA are advocates for consumers. You and me. And OTA?

They are for organic producers, and while they may represent some of the "little guys" they appear to mostly represent Industrial Organic - the big guys. OTA has even tried to weaken organic standards. As you may have read in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Industrial Organic may follow the letter of the law but it does not always respect the earth or the animals involved. You can raise a chicken that is technically organic, but has a life little better than a conventional, factory farmed chicken. You can grow crops on an enormous farm that is technically organic, but where the soil is no better off than on a conventional farm. OTA might support that. OCA doesn't.

So who or what does OTA support? The Support Vilsack website is supported by individuals, not companies. Who are they?

Who's behind the site?

This site was conceived and organized by Walter Robb, Peter Roy, Gary Hirshberg, and Sharon Egan, with feedback from the contributors listed in the sidebar to the right. Technical help was provided by Kerry and Ted Robb. Kerry operates a graphic design business, and Ted owns and operates InHouse Creative Studios.

Who paid for the site?

The total cost of the site was paid for equally and collectively by Walter Robb, Peter Roy, Gary Hirshberg, Drake Sadler, and Steve Demos as individuals. There is no corporate money involved, nor was any solicited. While some of us hold corporate positions, all of our posts are written as individual citizens. There are no corporate endorsements or affiliations unless specifically noted.

How did the site come to be?

The reason for doing this site is exactly what was said on the home page: to provide a positive alternative and a broader context for considering the Vilsack nomination. (Support Vilsack)

I don't know what it means "to provide a positive alternative and a broader context for considering the Vilsack nomination" since as far as I know he is the only nominee. But thanks to La Vida Locovore I know who the backers of the site are:

Walter Robb is co-President of Whole Foods Market. Peter Roy also served as president of Whole Foods Market. Gary Hirshberg is CEO of Stonyfield Farm yogurt. Sharon Egan is President/CEO of Sun Valley Bar. Industrial Organic.

These guys are using the good reputation of truly sustainable agriculture to enrich themselves with their "organic" and "natural" businesses and to make it appear that the sustainable food community supports Vilsack.

Vilsack is by no means at the abysmally low level of the typical Bush choice. But it would be nice to have someone who won't exploit everyone's hope for meaningful change. Vilsack is pretty much in the mold of the usual Ag state pol.

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Let's see what he actually is charged to accomplish and whether he does it. "Organic" lost its "soul" when it went federal. Joan Gussow, prof from Columbia U sat in on the formative regulatory meeting. She has some interesting stories about how outmanned and outgunned gov't reps were compared to their corporate counterparts (nothing new here, huh?). It's true regs were massaged and bent so we could have organic twinkies.
I'm more concerned about our new admin's dedication to retaining our farmer base, adding dramatically to their numbers, and supporting a networked regionally robust agricultural system. I'm also curious about where we're going in terms of HAACP requirements for farms, both large and small under this admin.

I live in the Midwest. Corn, bean, hog and cattle country. Organic farming is done here, but very little. It has it's consumers and should be given representation. However, the larger focus should be on more traditional (by today's standards) farming, where the most work can be done (including improving environmental damage of traditional farming).

I met Vilsack at the Iowa State Fair, as he was escorting Hillary Clinton around. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn he had his lips permanently attached to her butt. Vilsack was totally unimpressive as a governor and I suspect will be so as Ag Secretary. His only amibition was, and I believe still is, higher office.

Let's not forget the serious conflict between organic foods and public health from a food safety perspective here, Revere. Organic and locally grown and sold foods can easily spread foodborne illness. There is little to no regulation on foods sold locally or regionally. Organic foods are often grown using animal manure, and microbes present in that manure can be extremely difficult to wash off and may even be able to persist inside of produce. (See AEM link below)


Of course, this problem can be solved with food irradiation. Of course, no organic farms irradiate their product. In fact, irradiated food cannot, by law, be labeled organic (USDA). Radiating products literally costs just cents per pound and dramatically reduces microbial presence on products at the point of production. It is essential to food safety in the future.

USDA Link: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml#resources

I just find it ironic that you are complaining about a pick for an office important to public health, and then argue on behalf of an industry which refuses to incorporate science-based best-for-public-health practices.

I think there is a conflict between food safety for public health and our apparent ethical obligations to buy local and organic/free-range. I'm not sure which side I ought to take, but for the time being, I'm going to do what Mike Osterholm confessed to doing at a recent APHA food safety forum...avoid organics entirely. Take your own chances.

By Evan Henke (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

Organic farming is less productive in quantity; for sure the complete organic farming protocol is not going to provide the solution for feeding the increasing world population now and in the future.

As for the concern of diseases transmission for human beings Evan, the problem could be sorted out, because now the bio-fertilizers by using biotechnology such as fermentation is pretty effective to totally replace the chemical fertilizers.

Overall, the quality of organic foods is much higher than conventionally agricultural products, in terms of the safety and more nutritious content.

For health concern, eating more verities is very important. The farming pattern could be oriented in planting more species rather than monoculture. The direction of selling local is very right. If the protocol could be exempted from herbicide and insecticide, and the product only labeled as chemical free food; I have seen the hydroponics is growing well in Thailand, and they don't claim the products as organic. Maybe it is an alternative as well.

Due to the extending longevity, one of the big problems is the neuron-degenerative diseases- Alzheimer and other dementia. The latest study has shown that the food that we choose is one of the key factors leading to these sicknesses. The evidence of the importance of DHA in brain's function has more supporting data. For instance, the comparison between some developed countries and Japan (Italy included), the incidences of depression and dementia are significantly higher in the former groups. So, the DHA in seafood shall be the mandatory food for the senior people.

An estimated 4.5 million Americans in 2000 had Alzheimer's, its medical costs were around USD32 billion- the single item. Professor Michael Crawford in London reported that in Europe, the mental health cost 386 billions Euro in 2004.

The foods that we are eating, indeed is the big issue of the public health. It is estimated that Alzheimer's will increase 50% in 2010, comparing to 2000 for Americans.

Sorry, my post is not relating to the appointment.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents small and large businesses from all parts of the supply chain for organic agriculture and products, strongly supports both stringent standards for organic production and timely enforcement of those standards. For years, OTA has fought for proper funding at the federal level for those activities, and OTA's record shows this through the public comment process as well (see OTA's most recent public comment on the proposed pasture rule).

In regards to President-elect Obama's nomination of Gov. Vilsack to the post of Secretary of Agriculture, it is correct that OTA sent the Secretary-designate a congratulatory letter. The letter speaks for itself, and we invite you to read it at http://www.ota.com/pics/documents/Vilsack%20Congratulatory%20Letter.pdf . OTA's board has a no-endorsement policy and is committed to working with all regulatory appointees and staff as well as elected officials to further the organic agenda for the good of the public, farmers, the environment and the organic business community.

Organic Trade Association

Paiwan, I fail to see at all how the innovation of "fermenting" is revolutionizing the food safety of organic produce. For one, microbes are neccesary for the fermentation process to occur. From what I've read, organic fertilizers made by fermentation involves the fermentation of unused plant matter, which is not at all guarunteed to be free of microbes capable of causing human disease. After fermentation, I haven't read about any practices in screening the fertilizer for microbes of any sort. If just a few pieces of plant material inhabited by E. coli O157 or the incredibly robust Salmonella were to get into a fermentation tower, what's to say the warm conditions wouldn't favor their growth instead of eliminate them? Does the process involve large concentrations of alcohol which is subsequently removed from the fertilizer?

And what exactly are the costs of using fermented organic fertilizer? Since the process takes days and farms must purchase the fermentation tower, microbes, and some amount of plant matter, I'm skeptical that it's at all cheaper than just buying shit.

Large coorporate farms have systems in place to prevent contamination and often irradiate their products, whether it be produce or meat. Ultimately, irradiation is the key practice here, even crops grown with perfectly clean manure can be contaminated with enteric pathogens from the water source, human handlers (such as in the Shigella outbreak involving parsley a few years back), or animals living in the field. As we have all learned from previous outbreaks of foodborne illness, contamination at the point of production of fresh produce is a serious problem for consumers and the public health professionals who work to end outbreaks.

Shigella source: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/281/19/1785

By Evan Henke (not verified) on 09 Jan 2009 #permalink

Evan, I agree with you that irradiation is one of the effective way to prevent the diseases. But I am not so sure if the irradiation will distort the nutritional value or not; or leaving some unknown material like it is done by microwave? Hope to gain more information in this concern.

As your post has indicated that the possible contaminations are in the process, so to point to organic fertilizers specifically is pointless. As far as to produce bio-fertilizer or organic fertilizer, the adaptation of micro-organism seems to be a very effective way. Some directed inoculation by special organisms claimed by latest bio-technology seems in the pipeline for commercial application. Mycorrhia sp is one of them; please read

And some other probiotic products are more or less very helpful. So, my conclusion of organic fertilizers shall not be an issue for not promoting organic products.

Nevertheless, my comment on promoting organic products is on the scientific dimension to conclude which protocol is with precise leverage to gain the best benefits from the crop. A more resilient stance for dialogues and open-minded to lead the public with transparent process in forming regulation is necessary. It is long way to go, IMO.

Some areas of the public health education in relating to foods eating could be improved and would show good benefits; for instance, the seafood good for DHA should not be fried with saturated fat. It is the best by steamed or boiled with water and mixed with Olive oil. To fry seafood, you destroy DHA and antioxidants. Seondly,the vegetables by serving as salad constantly are not good idea; stir fry the vegetable short time is the best way to prevent the diseases provided that you eat regularly.

Was pleased to see you post on this subject revere. Haven't had the extra time to comment until now. Maybe I missed it, wouldn't surprise me, but you didn't put in a link for the OCA.


I've been reading this site for over two years now and the information is invaluable. Would suggest every concerned commenter, lurker, and health food nut to visit it often.
Lots of great articles on GMO's there too.

The foods below are highest in pesticides:

1. winter squash
2. wheat
3. strawberries
4. green beans
5. celery
6. apples
7. peaches
8. grapes
9. spinach
10. pears

This list didn't include coffee, and it's my understanding that coffee and cotton are two crops that receive huge amounts of pesticides.

As far as organic foods are concerned there is a list I've had for several years, a guideline. Organic foods do contain two-thirds fewer residues.

Absolutely choose organic for these: Apples, Bell peppers, Celery, Cherries, Imported Grapes, Nectarines, Peaches, Pears, Potatoes, Red Raspberries, Spinach, Strawberries.

Conventional: Asparagus, Avocados, Bananas, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Corn (sweet), Kiwis, Mangoes, Onions, Papayas, Peas (sweet), Pineapples.

Thanks, Lea.

I did take the chance to visit Organic Consumers Association's website. It has articles discussing the irradiation- pros and cons. Interesting.

Also surprised at your recommendations:
1. Apples and potato are in the list of absolute organic
2. Asparagus and broccoli are in the conventional list

I've thought that asparagus and broccoli are more easily exposed to insectides, just a guess.

The site of Organic Consumers Association has the articles relating to irradiation- pros and cons, interesting. Thanks Lea.

As your recommendation list, I was surprised at asparagus and broccoli are in conventional list; I've thought that they were easily to exposed to insectides, just my guess.