Working Together in the New Administration on Food Issues



It’s going to be a crowded field for those facing issues in the science of food, farming, ecology, and nutrition in the new administration. As Angie Tagtow points out, the incoming Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Daschle, are going to be forced to work closely together to form important policy for the years ahead.

But they are not alone – a handful of other high-profile thinkers will also be creating important policy decisions that will have implications for food, and it will be anyone’s guess how Obama will manage this diverse stable of talent.

The biggest change that Obama indicates he will be making is an increased commitment to biofuels.  He cemented that commitment with his early appointment of Steve Chu, currently the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be Secretary of Energy. Chu is a Nobel Laureate dedicated to alternative fuel sources, and has been a strong supporter of controversial biofuel research, including public-private partnerships between the University of California and the energy company BP.  But many people in the sustainable food world, a growing lobby in itself, have voiced strong concern against the reliance on an energy source that will decrease cropland for food, increase the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and potentially increase our net contribution to global warming.

Chu will be joined by John Holdren, appointed by Obama as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – in short, he will be the “president’s scientist.” Holdren will purportedly largely manage energy and environmental policy, therefore overlapping with Chu in the area of biofuels. Holdren has publicly expressed a need to get a handle on global warming, but it is unclear what voice he will bring to the biofuel debate.

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Finally, there is the recent nomination of Sanjay Gupta to the position of surgeon general. The surgeon general typically works with the president to give a public face to health issues, and it has been speculated that Gupta might also be involved in developing health policy. As a no-nonsense doctor on CNN and elsewhere, Gupta appears to have a sensible approach to personal health, so there is hope he might embrace an holistic perspective friendly to whole and local foods as medicine.

The question remains whether Gupta, Daschle, and the rest of the team that Obama is putting together to tackle our health care mess will have the ability to take on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries that have locked down what health care currently means in America.

But in the end, while Obama has assembled his Dream Team of science and policy advisers, it does come down to his decisions (Will he be persuaded to put a garden on the White House lawn?) for which we will have to wait just a few more days to see in action.

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  1. Monday, January 12th, 2009
    Another point to consider is the implications all of these appointments have for other countries. How has the US in the past been responsible for driving smaller countries into food insecurity? How have we sat by while local and indigenous peoples have fought for food soveignty, but were unable to achieve it because US biotech interests were controlling their lands? Neither Vilsack nor Chu seem like the type of people who are going to consider the global impact of their policy decisions in an ethical, just way. And as for pharmaceuticals and insurance industries--the US is at the mercy of foreign creditors on that one...partucularly China, which produces about 80% of generic drugs, and which holds 1 trillion dollars of our debt. So while we produce food insecurity for much of the rest of the world, we get health insecurity at home. Does it even out?