Obama taps food-industry exec for top ag-research post

Tom Philpott
Grist

The long-simmering debate about Obama’s ag policy — whether it represents a new paradigm, agribusiness as usual, or some enigmatic combination — has a new data point to consider.

Earlier this month, Congress approved Obama’s nomination of Catherine Woteki, the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. The appointment drew little attention in the press, including the sustainable-food blogosphere. That’s surprising, because Woteki comes to her new position after a five-year stint as global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., the multinational junk-food giant.

In her new role, Woteki will direct the U.S. government’s entire agricultural research budget. That means she will supervise Roger Beachy, head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who oversees the USDA’s billion-dollar-a-year competitive grants program. Beachy is a genetic scientist with strong ties to GM seed giant Monsanto; he is openly hostile to organic agriculture. At a time when U.S. farms desperately need to move toward more sustainable methods, federally supported agriculture research has fallen into the hands of a Monsanto man answering to a junk-food exec.

Somewhere in the East Wing, Michelle Obama must be fuming. The first lady has labored hard to fight the rising tide of diet-related maladies among children — and her husband has now handed the nation’s agricultural research agenda to someone who recently owed her living to robust sales of stuff like Milky Way, M&M’s, Twix, Skittles, Wrigley’s gum, and Snickers bars, all heavily marketed to kids.

With its $30 billion in annual revenue, Mars is the sixth-largest privately held company in the United States. In addition to heavily sweetened candy, Mars churns out convenience fare like Uncle Ben’s rice and pet food like Whiskas brand.

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