Paying Homage to an Industry Pioneer

September 10th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Paying Homage to an Industry Pioneer

When President Obama nominated former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture, those in the organic industry who had hoped for a somewhat friendly voice in Washington were pretty disappointed. Being from Iowa and seeming to have a bit of a soft spot for Monsanto did not endear Vilsack to the organic and environmental communities. A few months after his nomination, however, there was suddenly good reason to be excited. Advocates of organic sustainable agriculture could not have been given a better present than the nomination of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture; second in command. Her background is not only impressive, but she was instrumental in the early days when the organic community began interacting with Washington, DC.

As the organic industry began to grow and be taken seriously as big business in the 1980’s, there was mounting pressure on the government to regulate organic production. The person who played a key role as the organic community looked to navigate a very new terrain (Washington, DC) was a young staffer on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, named Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan ultimately became the driving force inside the political arena that helped shaped what evolved from the pairing of the organic community and the USDA. Merrigan is considered the primary force behind the development of federal organic standards, and she’s the author of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. All of these are very big deals in the history and evolution of our current organic industry.

Now, in the Obama administration, the interests of sustainability, organic farming, family farms, and conservation have a prominent seat at the table. This is a huge paradigm shift away from large agribusiness whose interests are well accounted for in Washington. It won’t be easy for Merrigan. She will often be a dissenting voice among some very powerful agricultural interest groups – they are many, and they are powerful inside the Beltway. But here’s what’s comforting and exciting. Obama knew when he nominated Merrigan that she was a strong advocate of sustainable organic agriculture. He knew exactly what he was getting – her record was no secret. This President’s expectation is that she will dissent, that she will continue to be the innovator and progressive thinker she has always been; and one day, perhaps even during Obama’s tenure, we will see Kathleen Merrigan, or someone with similar ideas and values, as Secretary of Agriculture. Now that would be a day to celebrate… but for now, we should still be very encouraged – we have a strong voice inside the current administration, and that’s a huge step forward. Keep up the good work Kathleen!