Natural Foods Merchandiser

Secretary of Agriculture Appointee Johanns Could Be Wild Card for Organics

According to leaders in the industry, President Bush's secretary of agriculture nominee, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, could be a wild card for organics, especially with the upcoming challenges of reauthorizing the Farm Bill and handling proposed agricultural budget cuts.

Johanns, who was unavailable for comment at press time, grew up on an Iowa dairy farm. After going to law school and practicing law in Lincoln, Neb., he progressed from a position on a county board of commissioners to Lincoln City Council, to two terms as mayor of Lincoln before becoming governor of Nebraska. He currently is chairman of the Governors' Biotechnology Partnership, which serves as a liaison between governors and the scientific community and works to educate governors about biotech issues and support bio-tech research.

Though several leaders in organics said they were hopeful that Johanns could be a supportive and cooperative liaison for the industry, few seemed to have a clear idea of what to expect from outgoing secretary Ann Veneman's appointed replacement.

"You never know what you're going to get when a new person is appointed," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. But DiMatteo said the OTA would be sure to meet with Johanns to introduce him to the organic industry and the National Organic Program.

Bob Gray, Washington, D.C., representative for the OTA, was hopeful about Johanns' possible influence, though unsure about his exposure to organics. "He comes from an agricultural background, so his interest is in the farming corner." Gray encouraged people in organics to pay him courtesy calls to familiarize him with the industry.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., made an attempt to reach out to Johanns, congratulating him on his nomination and saying he was "hopeful about the progress we can make by working together."

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, said Johanns hadn't really appeared on his radar screen, which he thought could be good or bad. Either way, Scowcroft said he would be surprised if the agency took a more antagonistic attitude toward organics because the industry has expanded so much into the mainstream world, with much of that growth happening in the heartland, where Johanns is from.

Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, raised some concerns about Johanns' stance on GMOs, however. "We are really concerned about him, because we feel he's going to be really pro-biotechnology." Winters said because of Johanns' history of strongly promoting U.S. agriculture abroad and his support of biotechnology, he may try to use the World Trade Organization to force biotech crops on other countries.

Dave Vetter, organic farmer and president of Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Neb., who had worked with Johanns in the past, said the state-level focus and support for small family farms in Nebraska is much less than it was 25 years ago. Vetter said he had not seen any real leadership from politicians in that area.

"But who knows?" said Vetter. "He has an opportunity to develop the climate to help small and medium-sized family farms around the country."

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