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As former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack begins his confirmation hearings in
Congress, a controversy is brewing in the organic food and farming industry
concerning his appointment.
For the last eight years, Bush administration officials at the USDA
have been widely criticized for "monkeywrenching" the National
Organic Program. They have been accused of not enforcing the law and,
among other improprieties, allowing giant factory farms to produce organic
milk, meat, and eggs.
Understandably, the industry viewed Barack Obama's election as a likely
turning point. "We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama
talked about 'change' during his campaign, that he included a shift
away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The
Over 130,000 petition signatures have been collected by two advocacy
groups, urging the Obama transition team to appoint a USDA secretary who would
embody that change. When Obama tapped former Governor Tom Vilsack, an Iowa lawyer with strong
past backing for genetic engineering and a close relationship with corporate
agribusiness interests, some organic proponents expressed their opposition.
The Organic Consumers Association, the largest group of its nature, is
now in the midst of a pressure campaign, backed by 40,000 signatures, calling on Congress to reject the
The success of the Organic Consumer Association's outreach prompted a
group of the organic industry's corporate CEOs to launch their own
counter petition drive in support of the Obama nominee.
Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods,
Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., the nation's near-monopoly organic
and natural foods distributor, have signed on in support of Mr. Vilsack.
Their petition, totaling about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents who personally worked with
Mr. Vilsack when he was governor.
"We hate to see what appears to be the grassroots lining up in
opposition of this nominee and corporate investors breaking with their most
dedicated customers. This split is not healthy for the organic
community," Kastel added.
Although The Cornucopia Institute is not endorsing either petition
drive, they have not given up hope
that the election of Barack Obama will usher in material changes at the USDA's
National Organic Program.
"Mr. Obama has made it clear that he will be the CEO of the new executive
branch management team," Kastel added. We fully expect, whether or
not Mr. Vilsack is confirmed, which appears likely, that the White House will
reinstate transparency and a sense of dedication to serving the public at what
Lincoln called the 'People's Department.'"
President-Elect Obama, and his family, will be the first residents of
the White House with a history of eating, and support for, organic food.
In a candid communique to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia
Institute described the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) as
"dysfunctional" and experiencing a "crisis in confidence"
and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.
Their letter described the NOP's long-standing adversarial
relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups
that represent them. It said, based on information gathered from freedom
of information documents: "Senior management, with oversight of the NOP,
has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has
overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to
corporations with interests in the organic industry."
"We would strongly recommend, as many public corporations do when
trying to regain shareholder and Wall Street confidence, that the Department
bring in a highly respected and skilled individual from the outside to run this
program," added Kastel.
Cornucopia has backed a widely circulated list of progressive
agricultural policy experts as potential sub-Cabinet level appointees including
Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.,
a food policy professor at Tufts University as well as a former top
USDA administrator, and James Riddle, currently with the University of
Minnesota, who is an organic farming and certification expert and former
chairman of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
"We expect that the new Obama leadership at the USDA will fully
respect the intent of Congress by vigorously enforcing the organic regulations,
protecting ethical farmers and the nation's consumers," said Will Fantle,
Cornucopia's Research Director and cofounder of the Wisconsin-based farm policy
In addition to having a program staff devoid of professional or
academic backgrounds in organic agriculture, the USDA has been sharply
criticized for "stacking" the NOSB, the expert advisory panel set up
by Congress, with corporate interests.
Audits prepared by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and
the Inspector General's office were damning in their criticism of the program's
failure to respect the NOSB's Congressionally mandated purview over policy and
the program's failure to carry out its most fundamental
responsibility-oversight and accreditation of the nation's network of
independent organic certifiers.
"If confirmed by Congress, we stand ready to work with former
Governor Vilsack to create an organic program within the USDA that the Obama
administration can truly be proud of and that will help grow a segment of the
agricultural industry that shows so much promise for our rural economies and
the health of our citizenry," stated Kastel.
- 30 -
Copies of the audits of the National Organic Program by the American
National Standards Institute and the office of the Inspector General at the
USDA are available upon request: firstname.lastname@example.org
An organizing campaign, by Food Democracy Now, supporting a dozen
"progressive" candidates for sub-Cabinet appointments at the USDA
(originally the list was circulated as suggestions to the Obama transition team
for Secretary), and now including over 69,000 electronic signatures, can be
found at: https://www.fooddemocracynow.org/
The Organic Consumers Association petition, currently with over 40,000
names, opposing the confirmation of former Governor Tom Vilsack, can be viewed
The petition, and signatories, organized by corporate officials of a
number of the nation's leading organic brands can be viewed at:
Although the organizers of the industry-backed petition include many
corporate officers, and a few nonprofit advocacy groups, some that get the
majority of their financial backing from corporate interests in the organic
industry, the list includes many respected individuals, including farmers from Iowa, and even relatives
of the former Governor. Their petition drive states a goal of 10,000
electronic signatures. The list stands currently at 539 (PM/CST on
"Because of the blowback that the Vilsack nomination has garnered
in the organic and sustainable farming communities, it would be an astute
political move to come right out of the
blocks with a strong affirmation, on the record, in support of the
wholesale housecleaning at the USDA's organic program," stated
Kastel. "A positive statement on organics now, by Mr. Vilsack,
should satisfy both the corporate and grassroots factions now competing in the
(organic) marketplace of ideas.
"During Governor Vilsack's tenure in office, Iowa was one of the
early states investing in an organic program at their department of
agriculture, and its land grant university started addressing the needs of
organic farmers," added Kastel. "We hope that history is
representative of how the nominee will balance competing interests within the
Even though a handful of giant industrial-scale farms are producing a
growing share of the nation's organic milk, meat, and eggs, the majority of all
organic brands still get their produce and commodities from ethical,
A scorecard, listing the nation's 110+ organic dairy brands, can be
found on The Cornucopia Institute website: www.cornucopia.org.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.
Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said he views federal spending freeze discussions as "inherently reasonable."
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Monday that he views discussions of a federal spending freeze—a real-term cut when adjusted for inflation—as "inherently reasonable," a position likely to rankle progressive lawmakers who have warned against giving an inch to Republican hostage-takers.
"We're willing to discuss freezing spending at current levels," Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters following the latest meeting between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Joe Biden on the debt ceiling—a sit-down that came with the U.S. government just 10 days away from possibly defaulting on its obligations.
Jeffries, who has fought with progressives throughout his political career, acknowledged Monday that "many in our party" might be uncomfortable with the idea of a spending freeze, which could cut spending by more than $1 trillion over a decade.
"But President Biden recognizes we're in a divided government situation," said Jeffries.
Lindsay Owens, an economist and the executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, was among the progressives who criticized the House Democratic leader's remarks.
"Jeez. Just showing everyone our cards," wrote Owens, who has warned that "any time you let Republicans control the terms of the debate around the debt ceiling, you're in trouble."
"Starting to think we need to ask the Nevada delegation to bring some poker players to the next caucus lunch for a briefing," Owens added Monday. "This is just amateur hour."
MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan also expressed dismay over Jeffries' comments:
\u201cDemocrats. Sigh. Democrats. \ud83e\udd37\ud83c\udffd\u200d\u2642\ufe0f\u201d— Mehdi Hasan (@Mehdi Hasan) 1684798013
After previously saying he would not be willing to attach any conditions to a debt ceiling increase—a stance that was backed by House Democrats across the ideological spectrum—Biden has voiced openness to reducing spending as part of a compromise with House Republicans, who have used the debt limit as leverage to pursue massive cuts to federal programs such as nutrition assistance and Medicaid.
Notably, Jeffries did not sign an April letter from House Democrats supporting a clean debt limit increase "without any extraneous policies attached."
On Friday, White House negotiators reportedly offered to accept a deal that would freeze 2024 military and non-military discretionary spending at 2023 levels.
"That would amount to a 5% cut when adjusted for inflation—a step back from the Biden administration budget request in March, which proposed increasing discretionary spending," Axiosnoted.
But Republicans dismissed the White House offer, pushing for a larger Pentagon budget and more severe cuts to non-military spending. GOP negotiators are currently pushing for around six years of federal spending caps, which would result in steep cuts to key agencies and programs and hinder the government's ability to respond to an economic downturn.
"The GOP is threatening to tank the entire economy in the name of 'fiscal responsibility.' What's responsible about tanking the economy, exactly?"
Pointing to the White House proposal, McCarthy told the press on Monday that "a freeze is not less, it's spending the same amount"—ignoring the impact of inflation.
The Republican speaker also made clear that the GOP—which slashed taxes for the rich and corporations in 2017, blowing a huge hole in the deficit—would not accept any tax increases as part of a debt ceiling agreement.
GOP negotiators have rejected White House offers to close tax loopholes, including the notorious carried-interest loophole exploited by rich private equity executives.
"I've been very clear with the president from day one. We're not going to raise taxes," McCarthy said Monday. "It's a spending problem."
Progressive lawmakers continued to push back against Republican demands for spending cuts on Monday as the White House and McCarthy both described their latest meeting in positive terms, signaling that a deal is possible before the June 1 deadline.
"Reminder: When House Republicans insist we 'spend less,' they mean public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, and addiction support," the Congressional Progressive Caucus tweeted Monday. "We cannot give in to this extortion."
\u201cThe GOP is threatening to tank the entire economy in the name of \u201cfiscal responsibility.\u201d\n\nWhat\u2019s responsible about tanking the economy, exactly?\u201d— Cori Bush (@Cori Bush) 1684772554
When asked about talk of a spending freeze, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) responded bluntly: "Look at what's being proposed in terms of cuts. Don't talk about spending in the abstract."
"Head Start—200,000 kids no slots, 100,000 kids without childcare," DeLauro, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday. "Talk to me about what has been suggested."
"It is atrocious that yet another family has to mourn their child because of our collective inability to fix our broken immigration system," lamented one activist in response to the death of Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez.
A coalition of migrant advocacy groups on Monday mourned and demanded justice for an 8-year-old Central American girl who died in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody earlier this month.
The #WelcomeWithDignity campaign for asylum rights remembered Anadith Tanay Reyes Álvarez, an 8-year-old girl who came to the United States with her Honduran parents, following her death on May 17 after CBP agents "neglected to heed her parent's requests for medical assistance," according to the coalition.
"Anadith deserves to be alive today," said #WelcomeWithDignity interim campaign manager Bilal Askaryar. "Border Patrol staff ignored the minimum safeguards for protecting the lives in their custody."
"Anadith's parents should be preoccupied with helping their 8-year-old daughter prepare for her new life in the United States and making the journey to meet her aunt in New York," Askaryar added. "Instead, they are grieving an unspeakable tragedy and trying to raise money to take Anadith's body to their new home with them."
\u201cNew details regarding the preventable death of an 8-year-old girl in CBP custody last week show that the child\u2019s mother repeatedly asked agents to take her daughter to the hospital, but her pleas were ignored. Anadith had a history of heart problems and sickle cell anemia.\ud83e\uddf5\ud83d\udc47\ud83c\udffe\u201d— The Young Center (@The Young Center) 1684623052
Reyes, who suffered a congenital heart condition and sickle cell anemia, was a Panamanian citizen who traveled with her Honduran parents and her two older siblings to the southern U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas. The family was detained by CBP agents on May 9 and held for more than a week.
On May 14, Reyes' mother Mabel Álvarez took the child to a treatment area after she complained of abdominal pain, nasal congestion, and a cough, CBP said. Reyes tested positive for Influenza and was given medications including Tamiflu and Zofran. CBP said she was also given acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Reyes and her family were then transported to a CBP facility in Harlingen, Texas, which is "designated for cases requiring medical isolation for individuals diagnosed with or closely exposed to communicable diseases," according to the agency.
Medical records show that Álvarez took Reyes to the Harlingen station's medical facility three times on May 17. On the last visit, Reyes appeared to be having a seizure. After her body went limp and she began bleeding from the mouth, medical staff started CPR and CBP had the girl rushed to Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen. She was pronounced dead less than an hour later.
"They killed my daughter, because she was nearly a day-and-a-half without being able to breathe," Álvarez claimed in an interview with the New York Daily News. "She cried and begged for her life and they ignored her. They didn't do anything for her."
"They never listened to me just because I am an immigrant," Álvarez said in a separate interview with Noticias Telemundo. "We want this not to go unpunished. We don't want this to happen to any other child."
\u201cHumanitarian reception for asylum seeking families, not jail/detention/custody, is what most countries offer with far less resources to those seeking protection. This was preventable. These policies are reprehensible and must end. #RestoreAsylum #WelcomeWithDignity @POTUS\u201d— Christina Asencio (@Christina Asencio) 1684642426
#WelcomeWith Dignity members from numerous advocacy groups joined Reyes' family in demanding justice.
"We are heartbroken to learn of another child's tragic death in government custody. No child should be locked in a jail, no matter where they were born," said Jennifer Anzardo Valdes, deputy director at Americans for Immigrant Justice.
"There is a long andwell-documented history of systemic abuse and mistreatment of children in CBP custody," she added. "In a landscape barren of rights for unaccompanied children, babies, and children coming to the United States with their parents, it is imperative that these vulnerable individuals are greeted with compassion and respect as they seek refuge and a better life in the United States. How many more children must die for CBP to effectuate change?"
Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director at America's Voice, said that "it is atrocious that yet another family has to mourn their child because of our collective inability to fix our broken immigration system."
"Our hearts are with her family, and tens of thousands of other families whose pursuit of a better life ends in tragedy," she added. "The CBP needs to learn from this tragedy and take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn't happen again."
\u201cCBP is an agency that should have nothing to do with children. No child should ever die in government custody again, and no parent should have their pleas for help be ignored as they watch their child's condition worsen. \n\nOur hearts go out to Anadith's family and loved ones.\u201d— Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (@Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project) 1684790817
Reyes is the first known migrant child to die in CBP custody during the Biden administration. At least two other Honduran minors—17-year-old Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza and a 4-year-old "medically fragile" girl—have died in U.S. custody in recent weeks.
The children's deaths come as the Biden administration rolls out controversial migrant policies following the expiration of Title 42, which was invoked by both Biden and his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, in order to deport millions of asylum-seekers under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It is cruel that another set of parents had to beg the CBP for medical help for their child and then watch her die because of CBP negligence," argued Ronnate Asirwatham, director of government relations for #WelcomeWithDignity member Catholic Social Justice. "We call on the Biden administration to end this cruelty and to swiftly end the practice of long-term CBP custody for immigrants."
"We encourage the IPCC to maintain its credibility by taking steps to ensure that Big Agriculture and the global meat industry have no influence over future reports."
As the United Nations marked International Day for Biological Diversity on Monday, advocacy groups and activists underscored the devastating impact of animal agriculture on the Earth's climate, while urging a leading U.N. panel to rebuff efforts by the meat and dairy industries to water down key processes and publications.
In recent letter to Hoesung Lee, who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 98 groups and individuals noted how the IPCC in 2021 removed language from its Sixth Assessment Report underscoring the urgency of reducing meat consumption—especially in developed nations—and shifting to a plant-based diet as a crucial means of combating the climate emergency.
"The provision was reportedly heavily contested—and actively lobbied against—by the global meat industry via Brazil and
Argentina's delegations," the letter states. "Our organizations, representing millions of individuals who are concerned about the future of our planet, are deeply troubled by the potential influence of the meat industry's years-long campaign of interference on any climate recommendations that include plant-based diets as a solution."
\u201cLast week, RDP and 80+ allies sent a letter to the IPCC demanding that it boldly uplift climate science & defend the public interest \u2014 even & especially when it conflicts with the private interests of notorious super-polluters like the global meat industry https://t.co/HebhKYsxdS\u201d— Revolving Door Project (@Revolving Door Project) 1684768855
"We are writing to urge the IPCC to fully recognize the scientific evidence that shows the role of food and agriculture in driving the climate crisis and to ensure that future reports specifically highlight plant-based diets as a key climate strategy," the letter states. "Furthermore, we encourage the IPCC to maintain its credibility by taking steps to ensure that Big Agriculture and the global meat industry have no influence over future reports."
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture produces 16.5% of global greenhouse emissions. On its own, the global livestock industry—which emits the methane equivalent of 3.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually—would be the world's third-largest greenhouse polluter.
Nearly one-third of Earth's ice-free land is currently used for livestock production. Beef production alone is responsible for more than 40% of the world's tropical deforestation, while a single quarter-pound beef burger requires the equivalent of 460 gallons of water to produce.
\u201cYour regular reminder that beef has a huge climate impact and we should try and eat less of it. https://t.co/lhxbNSRtRL\u201d— Zeke Hausfather (@Zeke Hausfather) 1683150459
The letter continues:
Meat and dairy industry actors have long obfuscated the negative climate impacts of their practices while putting up roadblocks against healthy and necessary regulations. In fact, the industry's tactics seem to be modeled on the fossil fuel playbook, using its tremendous lobbying power to pressure lawmakers to prevent regulations.
While the IPCC has historically managed to recommend plant-based diets, mention of plant-based diets was notably lacking from this year's report. The scientific community and the public at large deserve to have the IPCC's recommendations be unbiased, untainted, and undiluted by interference from industries that are financially incentivized to undermine science. The IPCC's recommendations would be more powerful and more effective with the assurance that there was no interference [from] industry lobbyists and political actors who prioritize their industry over the common good.
The letter's signatories recommend "avoiding meat and dairy products" as "the single-biggest way to reduce an individual's environmental impact on the planet."
According to the letter, if the world's biggest meat-eaters limited their beef intake to 1.5 hamburgers per week, "they could
avoid about 5.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year—twice the annual emissions of India."
\u201cIt's the #InternationalBiodiversityDay!\nIndustrial agribusiness boosted by generous subsidies produces plenty of #meat. Meat production requires large areas & takes space from wild nature.\nSo let's eat less meat, and help to revive #biodiversity!\n#BiodiversityDay #forests #beef\u201d— Seppo (@Seppo) 1684752831
Additionally, "if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 7.6 million cars off the road."
"We urge you to take steps to prevent both any potential future interference by the meat and dairy industries, and the appearance of such interference, in a manner that could weaken these necessary recommendations around the urgent need to reduce meat consumption and production," the letter concludes. "The world is counting on the IPCC to communicate the most accurate science and most effective solutions for the safekeeping of our planet's future."