The fierce farm crisis that is ravaging rural America garnered scant attention during the 2000 presidential campaign, so it came as no surprise that President-elect George W. Bush’s nominaton of Ann Veneman for the post of Agriculture Secretary received far less attention than those of several others. Yet, because of the broad authority she would be handed and because of her extreme politics, Veneman merits every bit as much scrutiny as that directed at Bush’s more high-profile appointments. Veneman’s track record leaves little doubt that if confirmed she will use her position as head of a powerful agency with 100,000 employees, an $82 billion budget and responsibility for implementing federal farm policy, protecting food safety and defending public lands, to advance what farm activist Mark Ritchie describes as “strictly pro-agribusiness, pro-pesticide company, pro-pharmaceutical company positions.”
As a key member of the Reagan and Bush farm teams, as former California Governor Pete Wilson’s Food and Agriculture Department director, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush, Veneman has rarely missed an opportunity to advance the interests of food-production and -processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms by huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that in 1994 launched the first genetically engineered food, and she declared last year that “we simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology.”
With Veneman’s encouragement, California developed an increasingly conglomerated, big-farm, chemically enhanced version of food production that Iowa Farmers Union president John Whitaker describes as “an entirely different face of agriculture” from that practiced or desired by most working farmers. “I don’t want to see that face transferred to Iowa,” says Whitaker. But with Veneman at the reins of the USDA as Congress prepares to rewrite the dismally flawed Freedom to Farm Act, the transfer would likely be unavoidable.
Veneman would not merely be hustling to deliver for Bush’s corporate contributors on domestic farm policy and public-land-use issues; she’d also be working for them on the international stage. A militant free-trader, Veneman helped negotiate the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which led to the World Trade Organization) and NAFTA. Even as family farmers were marching in Seattle to protest WTO interference with agricultural supports and food-safety standards, Veneman was there to tell the WTO to be more aggressive in removing so-called technical barriers to trade. So determined is Veneman to advance the free-trade agenda that Bush transition-team aides briefly considered her as a candidate for the position of US Trade Representative.
Veneman “seems to be coming in with the notion that her job is to be as extreme as possible in parroting the agribusiness line,” says Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “The problem is that that line is completely out of sync with what farmers want, what consumers want and what we know to be scientifically, ecologically and economically right.”