Last week, I attended the USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum, an annual conference that attracts nearly 2,000 participants, most of whom represent Big Ag. I have attended fourteen of the events because I get to learn how USDA continues to cater to corporate agriculture, regardless of which party is in power. The Outlook Forum usually has over two-dozen breakout sessions on various topics and a dinner where a prominent corporate or government official gives keynote remarks.
I often ask questions during the breakout sessions. This year, I asked a question during the rah-rah breakout session on the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) about the prospects of increased unsafe food imports from countries involved in the TPP and I got hissed by several audience members. I felt honored.
The keynote dinner speaker this year was Purdue University President Mitch Daniels. If the name sounds familiar, it is because he served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget during the first two years of the George W. Bush Administration. He was known as “the Blade” during his tenure because of his alleged reputation for being a fierce budget cutter. When he arrived as OMB director in 2001, he inherited a $236 billion federal budget surplus; when he left in 2003, there was a $400 billion budget deficit.
He then served two terms as the Republican governor of Indiana, during which he deeply slashed the state budget and pushed through many regressive policies, including the elimination of collective bargaining for state employees and privatizing the ownership of state toll roads and the food stamp program eligibility determination process. He also embarked on a very strange plan to deal with the loss of manufacturing jobs in Indiana. I will get to that later. After briefly flirting with running for President in 2012, Daniels instead accepted the appointment as president of Purdue University in Indiana.
When I received the program for this year’s forum, I was surprised to see Daniels listed as the dinner speaker for a couple of reasons. First, because he is a partisan Republican who implemented policies as OMB director and as governor that were so repulsive he’d be the last person one would expect to keynote a conference for an alleged progressive administration. Second, Daniels was the dinner speaker at the 2007 USDA Agriculture Outlook Forum during the Bush administration.
During his remarks that year, Daniels spoke about how as governor he was transforming the economy in Indiana, which had lost thousands of manufacturing jobs due to the collapse of domestic auto industry. He wanted to turn Indiana into one large swine factory farm to create jobs. He recounted how proud he was that during his campaign for governor, he was photographed kissing a hog on the lips and it was displayed widely in media across the state. What he did not say during that speech was how he fought cities and counties that tried to implement local control ordinances over the siting of factory farms to prevent pollution that these operations would cause.
I was curious what Daniels would say this year, so I decided to stay for dinner. I was not disappointed, but I was appalled. This year, he decided to mobilize attendees to go after consumers, groups opposed to genetically engineered (GMO) food and those who advocating for mandatory labeling for such foods.
He also revealed that some Purdue professors were about to publish a paper extolling the so-called virtues of GMOs.
Among the more outrageous statements he made at this conference included that the people behind the anti-GMO efforts reminded him of the Church of Scientology’s 1990 campaign against the anti-depressant Prozac. At the time, Daniels happened to be a top official of Eli Lilly—the big pharmaceutical company that developed Prozac. He also said—in a not-so-veiled way—that opponents of GMOs are comparable to the Nazis starving Jews in the concentration camps because GMOs will allegedly help feed the hungry in the world and not having them will lead to more starvation. He also denigrated the restaurant chain Chipotle, which has had some recent high profile food borne illness outbreaks, by saying that its company officials thought that E.coli was all natural.
When Daniels finished his speech, you could hear a pin drop in the room and he eventually got some light applause; even the representatives from Big Ag were stunned by his over-the-top comments.
One person who was notably absent from the dinner was USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Secretary Vilsack often says that one of the most frustrating parts of his job has been his inability to bring all sides of agriculture together to have civil discussions. He has not been able to bring small family farmers to the table to talk to big corporate farm operators or to bring the organic farming community together to talk to conventional agriculture.
Comparing conventional agriculture to organic, Vilsack has said that he has two sons, and while they are different from one another, he loves them both. Well, Mr. Secretary, I got to see your evil son in action the other night. The streamlining of GMO approvals during your tenure as secretary, the privatization of food inspection and your glacial approach to addressing corporate concentration in agriculture have all benefited your evil son. When are you going to start paying attention to your other son?