Former USDA chief Merrigan encourages organic fans to get involved in federal policy

The Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Debbi Snook

Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told her audience at Sunday’s sustainable agriculture conference in Granville that there’s still a lot of hope for organic farming, even with recent court losses against the use of genetically modified seeds.

“I’ve never been anti-GMO,” Merrigan said at the 35th gathering of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, “but the marketplace is demanding it.” She also believes organic farmers should be protected from GMO seed contamination for the financial ruin it could cause. Seeds, and food from such seeds are not allowed under legal definitions of organic food, and proliferating use of GMO seeds on some conventional farms can put organic farmers at risk of not producing a true organic product.

“Contamination can happen by drift, at grain elevators” and other ways, she said.

Yet, federal language has already been written to say the USDA can regulate whether plants can cause economic harm. That language has not yet been finalized, she said, and organic supporters should fight for it.

“You don’t have to prove GMOs are unsafe,” she said. “You just have to show economic damage.”

“We need it as a regulation in a big way.”

Merrigan served at the USDA for four years, helping to craft federal definitions for organic food, and championing the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program (with its website showing farmers and department programs across the country) and the Farm to School movement’s efforts to get fresh, local food to students.

In the next few weeks she’ll become a fixture in Washington, D.C. again, taking the role as executive director of the new sustainability center at George Washington University.

“I did my time,” Merrigan said of her previous federal role. Yet she encouraged participation in Washington with a list of “Ten Reasons People Should Be Engaged in Federal Policy.”

Advocacy makes a difference, she said, and has helped build food hubs and get more research done on organic agriculture.

“Your congressional delegation rocks,” she said of Reps. Marcia Fudge and Marcy Kaptur and Sen. Sherrod Brown. She encouraged the audience to continue to “populate the halls of power . . . with people who care about these issues.”

Public comment helped modify some of the upcoming food safety regulations that would have caused hardship for some smaller farms, she said.

“You didn’t even see the earlier versions,” she said. “There was a rule that farmers wouldn’t spit or chew gum. The government can do real harm if the regulations don’t really fit the needs.”

Merrigan reminded listeners that the USDA “is not the only game in town” and that gains in better food quality can come from the transportation and health departments. And she encouraged more applications for governmental grant money.

“Even if there’s more competition, we can all be lifted by it.”

The number of farmers in the country is dwindling, she said.

“The USDA shows that 50 percent of farmers will be eligible for retirement soon,” she said, “and half of those intend to retire.” New efforts must be made to pave the way for younger farmers, especially with financial help, new research in the organic field, tax policies and farmland preservation.

Having been a government employee, Merrigan asked the group to stop thinking of a federal agency as a group of people with one mind.

“There are 110,000 people working there,” she said. “Do you really believe they all think the same thing?

“One person can make a difference,” she said, both inside government and outside it.

Merrigan was introduced by Bruce McPheron who is in his second year as dean of Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture.

While it’s rare to have such a high-ranking Ohio agriculture official at the organic conference, McPheron promised he’d be more visible to the group.

“Ohio is an incredible place to be engaged in the food system,” he said. “And we’re all batting on the same team, hoping to provide abundant, healthy and safe food to support Ohio and America.”