Today’s announcement that President-elect Obama will be appointing Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture is a major disappointment for those who have been rattling for reform of our food system. Vilsack has been a major proponent of biotechnology and biotech companies. (The Organic Consumers Association has called him “a shill for Monsanto and corporate agribusiness.”) He’s also been an ardent proponent of corn and soy based biofuels, though they arguably use as much or more fossil energy to produce as they generate—a non-solution for getting ag off its heavy petroleum diet. Moreover, biofuels have come under intense global scrutiny over the past year because they’ve driven up world food prices creating hunger problems in the developing world.
Of course, few Secretaries of Agriculture have been reformers (see below). The one area where Vilsack might make a meaningful contribution is with renewable energy—but he’s definitely a fuel guy—not a food guy.
The Ghost of an Ag Secretary PastLast week Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times followed up on Michael Pollan's seminal letter to the next president and recommended that President-elect Obama appoint a Secretary of "Food" to replace the long-standing cabinet position of Secretary of "Agriculture." The idea has been sizzling around in the blogosphere, and there is now a petition at FoodDemocracyNow.org to support any one of a slate of great candidates, already signed by luminaries of the food cognoscenti. It's a compelling idea. America has become a truly urban nation, with less than 2 percent of us farming but 100 percent of us eating. And with all that eating, our country now faces a crisis in public health owing to epidemic obesity-a result of overproduction of insalubrious foods. Appointing a Secretary of Food rather than of Agriculture would signal a shift of emphasis—from concern about the business of agriculture to concern about consumers and food quality. Since the USDA has long been guided and girded by agribusiness and commodity-crop producers, the only way to get out of deep ruts of lobby-driven policies would be to tap a real reformer, someone who could put forth—and act upon—a new and bold vision. And that begs the question, has there ever been a real reformer at the USDA? Over the department's history, most Secretaries of Agriculture have come and gone with little fanfare and few waves-simply overseeing the business of the behemoth agency and functioning as über ambassadors for America's big commodity exporters. Few Secretaries have been farmers-many have been politicians, journalists, academics, farm businessmen -one even owned a yellow cab company. And yet from this august and not-so-august set, one Secretary arguably stands out as the most influential and reform-minded of all: Henry A. Wallace. When FDR appointed Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture in 1933, more than one-quarter of Americans were farmers. The nation was in the grips of the Great Depression and that twin calamity, the Dust Bowl. As one of two Republicans in FDRs cabinet, Wallace served from 1933 to 1940, becoming as Kenneth Galbraith called him, "second only to Roosevelt as the most important figure of the New Deal." Eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger would later call Wallace "the best secretary of agriculture the country has ever had." To understand why Wallace was so influential and "best," one must have a sense of his background. Henry A. was born into a family of agricultural editors. At the close of the 19th century, his grandfather and father had started a popular farmers' journal, Wallaces' Farmer, which was widely read in agricultural circles. And so young Henry grew up steeped in the world where farmers' concerns and farm policy were literally the mainstays of life. Following the family model, he became an idealist and intellectual. He took over the paper's helm when his dad, Henry C. Wallace, went to Washington in the 1920s, to accept an offer to serve as Secretary of Agriculture in the Harding Administration. If there ever was a "first family" in agriculture, the Wallaces were it, and Henry A. entered office with considerable stature in both the nation's capitol and farming community. Henry A. had also studied plant genetics and became deeply involved in developing and marketing hybrid corn, one the key innovations in 20th century agriculture (perhaps second only to synthetic fertilizers). His fascination with plants bordered on the mystical, and his company Pioneer Hi-Bred, started in the 1920s, would go on to become one of world's biggest seedhouses (purchased by Dupont in 1998 for nearly $8 billion). As an accomplished scientist, Wallace held the optimistic belief that science could solve many of agriculture's problems by breeding drought and pest resistance into crop plants. Most important, Wallace was acutely attuned of the predicament of farmers. Through the 1920s, the decade when our nation became predominantly urban, farmers had struggled to make ends meet. Their plight only deepened with the depression. Between 1929 and 1932, their per capita cash net income had declined from $162 to only $48. In the years following WWI, many farmers had taken out loans to shift from horse-power to gas-power and to increase land in production to meet post-war global demand. Under a burden of debt, they grew more crops to make ends meet, but the more they sent to market, the lower prices were driven—even below the cost of production in some cases. As the economy and markets collapsed, many had lost their land or were reduced to poverty conditions. Wallace rose to the challenge by thinking out of the box and promoting a whole host of New Deal programs to help farmers, including the Rural Electrification Administration, the Farm Credit Administration, and perhaps most significant, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). With the AAA, Wallace boldly promoted the policy of increasing farmers' income by controlling farm production according to a national plan. As Wallace saw it, benevolent government intervention in land-use planning to prevent gluts was the only way to give farmers the same opportunity that industry and business already had to boost income by decreasing supply. As a reformer, Wallace held firm to his ambition of preserving the rural way of life and restoring farmers' economic stature in the national economy. In the past, farmers had functioned atomistically, but in the new context of economic uncertainty, an individual farmer's life was strangely hitched to the fate of distant nations, corporations, and cities. Many of Wallace's policies were highly controversial. In particular, he ordered the slaughter of millions of pigs to keep them off the market—a move seen by many, including farmers, as outrageous during a time of widespread hunger and poverty; but they worked. As farm production declined, prices gradually rose. Between 1932 and 1936-during the Depression—gross farm income increased by 50 percent, restoring 90 percent of farmers' former purchasing power, enabling many to stay on farms that would have otherwise been lost. In the arena of soils, Wallace recognized that extreme problems of erosion, as evidenced by the dark clouds of billowing dust, owed largely to poor stewardship. The Soil Conservation Service came into existence under his leadership-and he, along with other USDA leaders, promoted ideals of "interdependence" and "permanence" for agriculture—ideas that carried both ecological and economic meanings. Their belief that agriculture could be reformed with science and better stewardship of soil to produce food for the long haul is an ideal that might be neatly summed up with today's buzzword: sustainability. "Interdependence" also held political meaning for Wallace as he aimed to shore up a divide between country and city by pairing policies that aided rural farmers with policies that aided the urban poor, such as food stamps and school lunches. Over the course of his tenure, Wallace presided over a massive expansion of his agency. The USDA grew from 40,000 to 140,000 employees, while expenditures rose from $280 million in 1932 to $1.5 billion in 1940. Given his strong interest in science, Wallace greatly expanded the agency's scientific research programs. Despite the rapid increase, the agency was widely recognized as the best run in Washington during the 1930s. If there was ever a reformer at the USDA, Henry A. Wallace —with his farmer-and soil-centered policies—was it. With a bold vision, intellectual breadth, zeal, compassion, scientific sophistication, and family standing, Wallace succeeded admirably in achieving his goals of preserving family farms, boosting farmers' income, and advancing the ideal of a permanent agriculture through the severe crises of depression and dust bowl. However, in the long term, his work with hybrid corn plus structures he put into place at the USDA would eventually morph, inflate, and become tools to powerful lobbies and economic forces—ultimately conspiring to unravel the agriculture that his proud family had once so staunchly advocated for. Wallace's pro-farmer reforms were undone as America's farms became corporatized, and his pro soil efforts were undermined by later policies that put production before stewardship, though the Soil Conservation Service—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service—still continues to promote conservation, a notable legacy. Henry A. Wallace went on to become Vice President in FDR's second term, an avowed anti-fascist, and then shifting leftward ran as a third-party candidate for the Progressive Party, a move that deeply tarnished his reputation owing to ties with Communist Party funding. The scarlet "C" coupled with news about his eastern spiritual quests would marginalize him—and his legacy—in cold war America. Nevertheless, if the ghost of this great Ag Secretary Past had his pick today, my guess is that he'd be pleased by the Food Democratists' slate. Those of us who talk now about sustainable farming and linking small farms with urban eaters are reviving his ideals of interdependence and permanence. If he had President-elect Obama's ear, he just might whisper: there is opportunity in adversity—pick a reformer! For more about Henry A. Wallace, check out some of the sources for this entry: American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace by John C. Culver and John Hyde A useful website about the New Deal hosted by Columbia University A Green and Permanent Land by Randal S. Beeman and James A. Pritchard, about the ideal of permanent agriculture in the 1930s What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Ann Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.