'Dear Mr Obama'
Raj Patel (author of 'Stuffed and Starved')
17 December 2008
Dear Mr Obama
I owe you an apology. In the run-up to the election, I said that you had been flying around in the Archer Daniels Midland jet, implying that you were still doing it. My mistake. Your team made it clear that you paid for all your own travel.
And although the same team neglected to mention that you'd only been flying around in the ADM jet in your first year of office as a Senator, the fact remains that I was wrong to suggest that this was an ongoing lapse in judgment.
In associating you with ADM, I realize I may have implied that you were, in some way, in hock to the interests of large corporations. This is an implication for which some observers have sought further evidence in the selection of your economic team. With the appointment of Timothy Geithner to the Treasury and Larry Summers to the position of top economic aide, accusations like Obama Chooses Wall Street Over Main Street have been flying through the blogosphere.
On behalf of those authors, I apologise. Even before you have taken office, they have tarnished the reputation of your office with innuendo, raising the trivia of the past, such as [Obama's chief economic advisor] Larry Summers' views on women’s brains (they’re not very good at maths), Africans (they could be a lot more polluted than they are), or indeed Mr Summers’ culpability in creating this crisis.
These are churlish observations, all. In 2009, we look forward to an era in which economic prosperity reigns once more, a time when the columnists will fill their thoughts not with the ephemera of the past, but the trivia of the future.
And this brings me to the crux of my apology. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I was delighted when you won the presidency. It was a day that showed that an established order could be overthrown through mobilization, that the country and the world had had enough of the status quo, and a day in which we believed that we, the people, could be sovereign.
I'm glad we've overcome those feelings over the past few weeks. With your slogans of change and hope, you were careful not to actually commit to terribly much, and it was our mistake to fill that very open policy space with our own little thoughts about how government might be reclaimed by the people, that corporations might be put in their place, that there might be redistribution of power away from a few families, back to genuine progressives. It’s heartening to see in a range of senior positions that having a parent in government is still a valid and legitimate reason to appoint people. Again, we owe you an apology for being so cavalier in our interpretation of hope and change.
Which is why I must apologise for having troubled you with this Food Democracy Now petition.
I'm not one to spend too much time signing online petitions, but I thought this one better than most. When you delayed in the announcement of the position of Secretary of Agriculture, it seemed as if there was an opening to pressure you into a wise choice.
Along with 50,000 other people who signed the petition, I thought it’d be a good idea not to have a US Department of Agriculture that, invariably, represented the interests of agricultural business, but a US Department of Food, that represented the interests both of producers and consumers of food. When the New York Times ran an op-ed about it, it almost seemed politically possible, especially since you'd mentioned reading Michael Pollan's splendid open letter to you in the Times Sunday Magazine.
Now that you've named Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as your choice for Secretary of Agriculture, I hope we can put all this behind us.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, you said "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff." The right wing media jumped on you, pointing out that there weren’t any Whole Foods in Iowa. Those attacks must have hurt more than you let on. Luckily, Tom Vilsack is a man who knows a great deal about agriculture, and will prevent you from making similar mistakes in the future.
Vilsack is, indeed, a man of the future. He has been touting Iowa as a model for energy security and carbon sequestration, because, to use his words,
"In the past eight years, Iowa successfully changed farm fields into energy fields”¦ In the last seven-and-a-half years, we've had six new power plants built, some of them state-of-the-art coal and natural gas facilities!"
If there are some minor incompatibilities between reducing carbon dioxide output and building coal and gas power stations, I'm sure your new energy secretary will be able to help.
And this confusion in no way diminishes Vilsack's keen grasp of future prospects. Indeed, he was once rumoured to be John Kerry’s pick for vice presidential running mate in 2004 and, as such, could today be a man who commands the sort of respect that Joe Biden does. Not only that, Vilsack has a sharp eye for future paths for agriculture. In 2004, on a trip to New Zealand, he said
"As Brazil and South America and Africa and some of the other parts of the world get their agricultural act together, our farms are going to be at a serious disadvantage. The only way we in the US and you in New Zealand are going to continue to have prosperity is to figure out something new to add value to the food we're producing. One way to do that is to have a value-added crop designed for a particular application, such as growing crops that are designed to convert to ethanol, or for medicines or nutriceuticals."
That this is exactly consonant with Archer Daniels Midlands' own vision of agricultural change has nothing to do with your flying in their aeroplane. That these priorities for the future of agriculture seem to exacerbate the root causes of this year's food crisis by diverting food crops to non-food uses*, and ignore the burdens caused by US agricultural policy on the poor here and abroad, particularly women, particularly in Africa, is something with which I'm sure Larry Summers is well qualified to help.
In conclusion, I'm sure we can look forward to a glorious future for food in the fields of these United States. Food will now become not only something we can eat, but something that’ll give us drugs and something to which we can set fire! As an added bonus, there’ll be no more awkward Whole Foods moments. You’ll soon be able to go into your local pharmacy and remark on the price of arugula, and there are pharmacies in all fifty states! Vilsack is clearly more qualified than any of the progressive candidates mentioned in the petition to guide the Department of Agriculture toward its bright tomorrow, filled with change and hope.
Apologies are due today, and I'm sure will continue to be throughout your administration.
More on Raj Patel's 'Stuffed and Starved'
EXTRACT: With your slogans of change and hope, you were careful not to actually commit to terribly much, and it was our mistake to fill that very open policy space with our own little thoughts...