New USDA Chief

Sound Consumer | February 2001

The new Secretary of the U.S. Departure of Agriculture (USDA) is Ann Veneman, a California lawyer who's known as a veteran of biotech and an advocate of global trade.

The USDA is a vast department with a budget of nearly $70 billion. It oversees national organic standards as well as field trials for genetically engineered crops, price supports and disaster aid for farmers, international food donations, food stamps, food safety, meat inspections and even the national forests — which the USDA oversees through the Forest Service.

Veneman rose from a mid-level U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official during the Reagan administration in the 1980s to the number two slot at USDA during the final years of the previous Bush administration. She also was the first woman to head the California Department of Food and Agriculture, where she focused on expanding farm exports. Last year, when then-Governor Bush began organizing his presidential campaign, Veneman volunteered to serve on his exploratory committee in California.

The choice of Veneman may disappoint some who feel it was time for a farmer to lead the agriculture department, after a string of lawyers and three former congressmen. Although raised on a peach farm in Modesto, California, Veneman has spent her career in government service or private law practice.

Veneman was on the board of directors for Calgene, a company that pioneered genetically altered tomatoes. In 1987, Calgene was the first company to obtain a USDA permit to field test a genetically engineered (GE) crop, the so-called Flavr Savr tomato. The Flavr Savr didn't perform and flopped with consumers.

Organizations representing small, family farmers say Veneman is a troubling choice because they believe she'll favor a larger role for business and a retreat from policies that help independent family farms.

"My impression is that she has been approachable and that she has been quite responsive to agribusiness," said Chuck Hassebrook, program director for the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. "What we don't know is how responsive she will be to the concerns of smaller family farms. One of the biggest disappointments of the campaign, even back in the Iowa caucuses, is that there was so little debate around the future of family farming. I didn't hear any on the Republican side."

The national director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Ronnie Cummins, says "she loves biotech, she loves factory farming and therefore the OCA will have to fight her and the USDA every step of the way for the next four years."

Environmentalists say they're disturbed by the list of Veneman's legal clients. "We have some very serious concerns about her background," said Bruce Hamilton, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club. He cites instances where Veneman represented groups working to expand access to public lands for mineral extraction and use by off-road vehicles.

Laura Skaer, of the Northwest Mining Association, says "We expect she'll be more friendly to natural resource development."

Congress begins work next year on a new farm bill and new international farm trade negotiations.

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