Thoughts on Watching Vilsack at the Confirmation Hearings



During the Vilsack hearings yesterday, there were a few hints of change — a reference to urban agriculture, a consistently stated commitment to “diverse” agriculture. But, overall, the picture was sobering and not a little depressing. The attitudes of the committee revealed a deep concern for industrial agriculture and its future.

I tried to picture Michael Pollan in Vilsack’s chair, answering the same questions. The US Senate Agriculture Committee would have been outraged by his answers — the answers we collectively discuss and generally support in the sustainable food community.

Only when food consumers and farmers growing for local consumption create a political movement that elects a lot of Congresspeople and Senators will we have a shot for change in Washington.

The hearings confirmed Obama’s judgment in appointing Vilsack — an understanding that the Department of Agriculture will not be seedbed for the change we seek.

They also present us with a very clear picture of the scale of the challenge before us.

We need to develop a political framework for the Local Food Revolution that enables the thousands of grassroots food initiatives to come together in an effective political movement. This is easier said than done.

In my experience, most grassroots food and small farming efforts are decidedly non-partisan in nature. Politics only reluctantly enters into the equation, often in the struggle over food safety regulations and land tenure.

By some measure, the Local Food Revolution is deeply libertarian in its implicit attitudes — personal choices good, government bad. Foodies don’t want to get involved in the messy political process — particularly if it involves challenging the power of a few agribusiness corporations and a handful of rich farmers who currently control agriculture policy.

We have no political framework to challenge this corporate power; witness the inability of Congress to even know where the first $350 billion of the bailout went.

In the past, most of our political effort has gone into stopping particular USDA initiatives and in trying to influence the Farm Bill every five years. This strategy while good as far as it goes, is not up to the challenge before us.

So what do we do?

We need a proactive vision of our economy with healthy local food and clean local energy systems at its center.

We need to challenge the current agricultural and political paradigm through a national campaign to re-localize our food and energy systems.

This is NOT a return to some romantic, idealized vision of the 19th Century. Michael Shuman described the change this way (in his book Going Local).

“It is easy to dismiss the principle of self-reliance by pointing to many complex products that communities cannot manufacture on their own. The goal of a self-reliant community, however, is not to create a Robinson Crusoe economy in which no resources, people or goods enter or leave. A self-reliant community simply should seek control over over its own economy as far as is practical.”

Key words in this change are: self-reliance, resilience, community, local control, harmony, and balance.

I propose we organize a political movement — intentionally and broadly — including health care, energy, education, and economic development in the equation as well as local food — around re-localization of the economy. This is not a new idea. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has pursued this vision for at least three decades.

Tip O’Neil used to say, “all politics is local.”  Well, yes.

Peak Oil activists have moved beyond their doomsday message to the next step and created a Transition Movement — transition to a post-petroleum economy and society living on 90% less petroleum than we do currently. They present this change as an opportunity to renew and regenerate our society and culture — a positive, better future being the end result. Such a hopeful vision should, in my opinion, be at the center of re-imagining of our effort to change public policy.

Read these books, if you haven’t already:

EF Schumacher — Small is Beautiful (particularly the Buddhist Economics essay)
Rob Hopkins — The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
Albert Bates — The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook
Michael Shuman — Going Local

These books don’t provide all the answers. They just raise the right questions and values. The way we challenge the conventional agriculture death spiral occurring in Washington is to fundamentally change the political game. Re-localization builds on the deep libertarian roots of the Local Food Revolution while challenging the global economic paradigm in a non-partisan, bi-partisan way.

[Editor: For a dip into the field, see Annie Myers’ research on the movement forming among young farmers]

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  1. Thursday, January 15th, 2009
    I too was very disappointed by this appointment and have been following it closely. I was, like many, hoping for really change in this area.

    Thanks for the book recommendations, I'll request them from the library to fill my winter evenings.
  2. Thursday, January 15th, 2009
    heya. great post. (i posted something along the same lines today, but in relation to a wendell berry essay.) looking forward to checking out the books you mention. thanks!
  3. Anonymous
    Saturday, January 17th, 2009
    Great ideas! I'm looking for a group as described to join. Frame the movement to be about and for children, focusing on our collective responsibility to provide them with a better future, and every parent who hears about the movement will join.

    Fighting agri-businesses or big pharm is the same fight - people fighting for the common good against harmful profit driven policies.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-kirby/uc-davis-study-autism-is_b_156153.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-escobar/doctors-vaccine-dissent-a_b_157744.html

    Lots of links to read to see the similarities between that fight and the fight against unsafe GMO foods described in MUST HAVE books such as
    - SHEEDDING LIGHT ON GE FOOD by Beth Harrison (since her website is hacked, I'd start with her)
    - GENETIC ROULETTE and SEEDS OF DECEPTION by Jeffrey M. Smith

    I'll be checking back.
  4. Anonymous
    Saturday, January 17th, 2009
    http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=389x4849578

    Calling HOWARD DEAN, anyone?