In the less than three months since President Obama signed the farm bill, the pressure points in agricultural policy making have shifted dramatically.
April began with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack making an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the type of forum where for decades his predecessors have mainly been pummeled by questions about U.S. farm subsidies and their impacts on global trade. Only this year Vilsack was asked mostly about food stamps, organic and local production, biotechnology, and climate change.
The council members' concerns could be dismissed as the personal obsessions of a wealthy elite, but as the month progressed they seemed to foreshadow an increasingly complicated agricultural world, especially for biotechnology.
The beginning of the interview, conducted by Roger Altman, an investment banker who has served in Democratic administrations, proceeded normally as Vilsack described the new farm bill, noted that farm exports and income have been at record levels during the Obama administration, and said that it is important to maintain a safety net for farmers in order to maintain "a food-secure nation."
But in a sign that the lengthy farm-bill debate over food stamps — officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — had penetrated the top ranks of American business, Altman asked Vilsack if the high number of Americans on food stamps and the poor job prospects for young Americans are signals that Americans are living in A Tale of Two Cities.
Vilsack agreed this was the case, noting that he is proud that the percentage of people who are eligible for food stamps and actually get them has risen to 80 percent under his administration. He added that he is "deeply concerned" about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposal to turn food stamps into a limited block grant for the states because he is worried that some state leaders might not want people to use it and would limit access.
When an audience member asked Vilsack how he handles opposition to biotechnology in the states, the secretary responded that he has attempted to teach the vast majority of Americans who live away from farms about where their food comes from and "to create an atmosphere where no single type of agriculture is judged to be less effective or less beneficial or less important than any other type of agriculture."
That prompted Altman to remark: "I spent most of my career in finance and I can assure you that most people in the financial community — at least here in New York — do know where their food comes from. They know it comes from Whole Foods."
And that remark prompted another audience member to ask Vilsack if he has thought about "balancing that incredible productivity with some of these other issues around food safety, animal welfare, hormones in meat, all of the stuff that is actually corollary to this incredible productivity."
Vilsack said that "our view at USDA is not to pick winners or losers," but that he believes the market will address "how strongly" people feel about these issues, including animal welfare.
Vilsack also noted that at his urging Whole Foods has opened a store in inner-city Detroit and that food-stamp beneficiaries are patronizing it as well as farmers' markets. "We shouldn't be segregating the SNAP beneficiaries going over here to the discount store," he said.
As if on cue, the very next day Walmart proved Vilsack's faith in the market by announcing that it will carry processed organic foods ranging from salsa and pasta sauce to quinoa and chicken broth from Wild Oats, a company that promises to charge at least 25 percent less than other organic brands.
Walmart's announcement seems to indicate that the interest in organics has trickled down from the elites to the masses. Harry Balzer, the chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market analysis firm, told the Consumer Federation of America's National Food Policy Conference last week, "I have no doubt in my mind this country wants cheaper organic food." Consumers have been worried about food additives since the 1980s, he added.
Balzer said on his firm's website that he believes so many consumers want labeling for genetic modification that he believes the industry will have to address it at some point.
Also this month, Vermont has come close to finalizing a law requiring labeling of genetically modified foods, and China has rejected shipments of U.S. corn because they contained a GMO variety that China has not approved.
At an Export-Import Bank conference Friday, Vilsack said that if there is one thing he could change internationally it would be for China and other countries to "synchronize" their biotechnology regulatory processes with the United States.
All this success for organics and local production must please Vilsack on one level since he has also said that he views the popularity of local and organically produced food as an opportunity for smaller farmers. But this success may also bring questions from Congress about whether food-stamp beneficiaries should be spending their money on more expensive organic and locally produced food, and it does nothing to address the growing challenges to the biotechnology he has supported since he was governor of Iowa.
Some days Vilsack may yearn for the old days, when farm subsidies were the hardest thing for an Agriculture secretary to defend.