Natural Foods Merchandiser

Merrigan tapped as USDA deputy secretary

President Obama has nominated Kathleen Merrigan, a professor at Tufts University and a Clinton-era U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator, to be the second in command at the USDA. Many in the organic and sustainable farming world are pleased with the appointment, citing Merrigan’s academic and professional experience in the organic realm, including her lead role in developing the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

For weeks following former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s appointment as secretary of agriculture, the blogosphere has been buzzing over who would fill the no. 2 spot. Merrigan is one of the “Sustainable Dozen,” a list of recommendations for undersecretary positions compiled by Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots coalition of “farmers, writers, chefs, eaters and policy advocates” that supports “policies that encourage sustainable, humane, organic and natural food systems.”

But, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, e-mail and blog campaigns were only part of the reason for Merrigan’s nomination. It is further evidence of President Obama’s intent to elevate our discourse about the nation’s food system out of the limited mind-frame of the past and into the complex, global worldview of the future, Scowcroft said.

“She brings a strong academic and policy based background to the USDA’s leadership and that’s far beyond her highly detailed understanding of organic,” Scowcroft said.

It’s easy to forget that the USDA not only oversees farms, but also forests, food safety/security, food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children program, and much more. Although Secretary Vilsack is the head of the department, the deputy secretary is the one charged with carrying out the agency’s initiatives. Nutrition, hunger and food security will likely be high on the list of priorities, according to Scowcroft.

How will Merrigan tackle the job? Scowcroft pointed to her past experience with the USDA, including the active role she took in sorting out the 1999 Hunts Point Terminal Market bribery scandal that implicated produce traders and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service inspectors.

Scowcroft also said Merrigan’s appointment signals the administration’s commitment to increased diversity. In 1999, she received publicity for refusing to accept nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee due to a lack of women, minorities and persons with disabilities. Merrigan’s actions were seen by some as a challenge to a “good old boy” network, and generated some backlash. “They had their tomatoes handed to them,” Scowcroft said.

When it comes down to it, what really matters is Merrigan’s experience.
“The commodity boards, Hunts Point, working with 9,000 staff—those are signposts in the blogosphere,” Scowcroft said. “But this woman is a professor of nutrition at Tufts. It’s really her academic and policy background that is important.”

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