Does Obama Really Support Sustainable Agriculture?

Image credit: The White House / Joyce N. Boghosian

When Michelle Obama first announced her White House garden, locavores everywhere rejoiced. Here was a highly symbolic, yet practical, indication of where the administration stood on sustainable agriculture. Yet while the First Lady has since enlarged the White House garden, and even added bee hives, it seems that many are concerned that the Obamas' symbolism and rhetoric is not being matched by action on the policy level—and it is on the policy level that the President (and, to a lesser degree, his wife) will ultimately be judged. In an article over at UTNE, excerpted from The American Prospect, Heather Rogers explores whether it is even possible for the Obamas to support both sustainable farming and big agriculture at the same time. The answer, according to Rogers and many of her interviewees at least, appears to be 'dream on':

"Obama and Vilsack [Obama's Secretary of Agriculture] seem to think they can nurture sustainable, small-scale farming while still giving big agribusiness their all. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis puts it, "Obama said he wants to double exports in the next five years--when he's talking about ag exports, he's talking corn, soy, commodity crops. How can you do that and still support sustainable ag? You can't."

While Rogers concedes there have been some incremental improvements for small and sustainable farmers—most notably regarding the overhaul of the National Organic Program following the appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of the USDA —many of Obama's other food- and agriculture-related appointments come firmly from the industrial agriculture and biotech camps.

Many activists and advocates for greener farming will no doubt argue that some progress is better than none at all, but it is hard to escape the fact that creating truly sustainable agriculture demands a massive overhaul of our entire food system—an overhaul on a scale that hasn't been seen in decades. Planting some seeds here, and changing some rules there, may make life easier for a few individual farmers, but it is hard to see how the Obamas, or any of their successors for that matter, can take concrete steps toward cleaner, greener and safer farming without upsetting those with an interest in the status quo.

It's like they say—you can't make an omelette without first recalling your nasty, salmonella-riddled eggs.

At risk of playing Devil's advocate, we should also keep in mind that small may not always be better—the efficiencies of scale inherent in big farming do have some environmental advantages too, and there is not a small-scale organic farmer out there who doesn't have his or her own environmental impacts to worry about. Perhaps before we ask the Obamas to pick which 'side' they are on, we first need to figure out what sustainable agriculture really looks like—but that's a pretty complicated question in and of itself. The one thing I know for certain—it doesn't look like what we have now, however much some folks would like to convince you otherwise.

More on the White House Garden
Michelle Obama Enlarges White House Garden
Obama to Oprah: Veggie Garden Coming to the White House
White House Garden to Feature Bees Too
More on Industrial Agriculture
Omnivores Delusion and the Joy of Industrial Agriculture
6 Ways Agriculture Impacts Global Warming
How Industrial Farming Hurts Us, Even If We Don't Eat It

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