February 23, 2009

The Sustainable Second in Command
I guess this whole "activism" thing sometimes works. Tom Vilsack has named Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's Sustainable Dozen, as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture - the agency's number two position. Merrigan, currently on faculty at Tufts, is the Clinton-era head of the Agricultural Marketing Service, the division in charge of all those fun USDA labels. Not only that but - according to Chews Wise's Samuel Fromartz - as an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, Merrigan actually drafted the USDA Organic labeling law. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, having first written the law and later been in charge of enforcing it, there's no doubt that Merrigan is battle-tested.

In the comments to Fromartz's post, none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener who I've written about here) gives Merrigan his hearty endorsement - and this was when folks thought she was in the running for a far more junior position.

And it appears that Merrigan didn't shy away from battles. A WaPo profile of her from 2000 (now behind a firewall but helpfully reproduced here), details the her conflicts with the various agricultural advisory committees - a bunch of guys who clearly lacked both social graces as well as a sense of humor:

After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity.

After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn't made a "significant effort" to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled "Attack of the Tomato Killers." The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as "Beltway Blindness." In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: "I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements."

I bet she'll get a few questions on that at her confirmation hearings. Of course, upsetting the old boy network is the least of her qualifications. Indeed one element on her cv that's worth noting is her involvement in the now defunct Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. It was a project that:
spotlighted policy issues arising from [biotech related] discussions and served as a credible, honest broker, bringing together people with differing viewpoints to examine the opportunities and challenges of agricultural biotechnology.
It was apparently considered a moderate voice in the debate - usually suggesting neither a hostile or laissez-faire approach to GM crops. This should give us some sense of what kind of experience Vilsack wants in his deputy since both he and President Obama are supportive of biotech research. Even so, Merrigan's pick is a clear a win for progressives - though her selection does beg the question as to whether Chuck Hassebrook of the Center of Rural Affairs, and considered by some to be a leading candidate for Merrigan's job, jumped or was pushed from the shortlist. In fact, of the Sustainable Dozen members, Merrigan appears to be one of the lower profile figures - but that shouldn't come as a surprise. Sometimes reform has to creep rather than storm into the room. Regardless, I think we can now officially dispense with questions of Vilsack's commitment to reform. The only thing left to find out - can he deliver?

[Updated 2/25] Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats hints at an answer regarding Hassebrook - that it was House Ag Chairman (and enemy of reform) Rep. Collin Peterson who "pitched a fit" of obstruction rather than Sen. Kent Conrad, as previously rumored. Of course, fit pitching is a popular sport on the Hill so, as with the Murder on the Orient Express, Hassebrook's kaibosh probably has multiple fingerprints.

Also, Ezra found Marion Nestle to be surprisingly nonplussed by Merrigan's nomination - for reasons I touched on above. Simply put, she doesn't like Merrigan's stance on transgenics. That's definitely one area to keep on eye on.

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