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With USDA Secretary Nominee Tom Vilsack's Proven History of Pushing a Big Ag and GMO Agenda, Here is What We Should Be Doing Differently

For many people deeply entrenched in the policy side of organic, there seems to have been a prevailing attitude these last four years of “let’s just pray we can make it through this administration and hope there is a change in 2020.”

Well, the change we were desperately seeking is finally here with the nomination of former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, yet it is anything but a welcome one.

“It is hard to imagine a USDA Secretary more pro-GMO than Tom Vilsack, and he represents a threat to the integrity of organic,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “It is no secret who he is, and his nomination is both dangerous and disappointing.”

“Along with civil rights leaders, Black and Latino farmer organizations and progressive farm groups, we are deeply disappointed with the choice of Tom Vilsack. He is the wrong person to steer us away from chemical-intensive agriculture and toward  a more diversified, organic and just food system,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth.

Under his watch as head of the USDA from 2009-2017, a few of Vilsack’s notable accomplishments include the following:

Deregulation of GMOs  Because of a new policy that his USDA implemented, GMOs that do not use a plant-pest, which now include the burgeoning class of gene-edited crops and those such as the genetically-engineered Kentucky bluegrass from Scotts Miracle-Gro, are able to side-step regulation and oversight. This leaves consumers and the environment at great risk and completely unprotected.

Allowing Hydroponics to Flourish  Hydroponics is a complete violation of Section 6513 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and yet under Vilsack’s USDA, this method of growing fruits and vegetables spurred a massive — and many people believe illegal — sector within organic while putting soil-based organic farmers at a serious operating and financial disadvantage.

Changing of the Sunset Rule and the Way Synthetic Ingredients are Approved in Organic  With the USDA’s unilateral, procedural change to the Sunset Rule made in 2013, it has become exceedingly difficult to get the National Organic Standards Board to recommend to de-list a synthetic ingredient from the National List.

Illegally Allowing Contaminated Organic Compost  The USDA illegally allowed pesticide contamination in compost used in organic food production. A federal judge eventually ruled that the USDA’s National Organic Program violated the law and struck it down.


Previously named as the Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Association and having served as the President/CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council since leaving the USDA in 2017, Tom Vilsack’s ties to Big Ag run deep. Even though he could prove us wrong, it is difficult to envision that Vilsack will make any meaningful changes that benefit and protect organic, especially given his history.

As such, this begs the question: What can we, as an industry, be doing differently?

It starts with building and nurturing a large pool of candidates, both Democratic and Republican. So, when the USDA Secretary position opens again, we have many familiar names that are both qualified and willing to advocate for organic.

Because right now, we do not have that.

Our best bet was Rep. Marcia Fudge, someone who may have done a great job fighting for organic, but she is a person that was barely known to most people in our industry just six months ago and has no experience managing large, agricultural-focused organizations. After all, the USDA is made up of 29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees at more than 4,500 locations across the country.

One logical way to move forward is to start with the current secretaries of agriculture for each of the 50 states and determine which ones have implemented policies favorable to organic. Once we have these names, we need to build relationships and engage with them, on both a local and national level.

And if we do this consistently over time, we will have a large network of qualified Democratic and Republican candidates for 2024, 2028 and beyond.

While this may not guarantee the newly-elected president will select any of these people, at least we will have given ourselves a fighting chance, and it is possible that these individuals could be named to high posts within the USDA, which would be of enormous help to us as well.

Given the importance of our industry for both human and environmental health, we can ill-afford not to be thinking strategically and planning for the long-term.

And as we have just witnessed, this approach of “hoping we get someone good” simply isn’t working.

Wishing you a fantastic year ahead!

Max Goldberg, Founder

New Organic Products

New Organic Products

Grain-Free Tortilla Chips from Que Pasa

Que Pasa, a brand owned by Nature’s Path, has introduced a new line of organic, grain-free tortilla chips. Made with organic cassava flour, these gluten-free and paleo-friendly chips come in three flavors --  sea salt, nacho (vegan cheese) and lime.

Sports Jel from Zellee Organic

Containing the full spectrum of electrolytes from ionic trace minerals -- including potassium, chloride, sodium, magnesium and calcium -- the Sports Jel from Zellee Organic also helps to increase energy and stamina while reducing muscle cramps. No added sugar, plant-based and available in two flavors -- Hawaiian Tropical Twist and Aloha Raspberry Lemonade.

100% Cotton Hooded Terry Robe from Farm to Home

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Mushroom Jerky from Eat the Change

Founded by Honest Tea's Seth Goldman and celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, Eat the Change is a brand new line of organic mushroom jerky. Plant-based, soy-free and wood smoked, the jerky is available in five flavors -- sea salt & cracked pepper, hickory smokehouse, maple mustard, teriyaki ginger and habanero bbq.
This Week's News Items

Weekly News Summaries

First Course
The Verge

FDA Approves a Genetically-Engineered Pig

By Kait Sanchez

On Monday, the FDA approved a genetically-engineered pig whose body doesn't make a component that can trigger allergies in people.

Food Business News

Sales plunge 75% for Food & Beverage Items with Hemp CBD

By Jeff Gelski

Industry experts attribute the drop to much fewer impulse purchases and a slowdown in sales at convenience stores.


Serenity Kids closes a $3M Round

By Douglas Yu

The Texas-based organic baby food company is on track to do $21 million in revenue next year.

Second Course

Planet FWD raises Another $2.5M, Unveils Climate-Friendly Snacks

By Megan Rose Dickey

Started by Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins, the company has introduced a line of organic, carbon-neutral crackers called Moonshot Snacks.

Civil Eats

Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?

By Lisa Held

With regenerative agriculture gaining traction, the organic industry is positioning itself as leading the way on carbon sequestration. The research is promising -- but inconclusive.

PR Newswire

Natural Grocers Unveils its Top 10 Nutrition Trends For 2021

Vitamin D, immune support and blood sugar balance top the list.

Third Course
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

‘Buy It or Else’: Inside Monsanto and BASF’s moves to Force Dicamba on Farmers

By Jonathan Hettinger

Internal company records show the companies knew crop damage from their weed killer would be extensive. They sold it anyway.

AgNet West

Statewide Quarantine Issued for Organic Fertilizer Product

By Brian German

Because of the presence of glyphosate and diquat, the California Department of Food and Agriculture recently issued a statewide quarantine for the organic fertilizer product Agro Gold WS.

Center for Food Safety

EPA Continues to Allow Registration of the Super-Toxic Chlorpyrifos

The EPA released a proposed interim decision on the toxic, brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos, effectively continuing its registration in the U.S., despite a proposed ban on the insecticide by the Obama Administration's EPA in 2015.

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* Dr. Bronner’s has announced the recipients of its 2020 Animal Advocacy Donation Program, which aims to end the exploitation and suffering of animals.

* The Middle East Organic and Natural Products Expo Dubai is going on now — in person — and ends tomorrow.

* Inc. Magazine selected Gaia Herbs as a gold medalist within the wellness product category for its 2020 #BestInBusiness awards.

* These will be the 21 biggest food trends of 2021, according to chefs.

* Organic ice cream brand Coconut Bliss recently unveiled The Bliss Maker, a countertop machine that allows customers to make vegan soft-serve in the comfort of their home.

* How Beyond Good built transparency into its African chocolate production.

* In partnership with the Danone Ecosystem Fund and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, Harmless Harvest has announced the Regenerative Coconuts Agriculture Project, a first-of-its-kind project in Thailand aimed at creating the most sustainable, regenerative farming model for the coconut industry.

* PCC Community Markets announced that its store in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle is the first Living Building Challenge Petal-Certified grocery store in the world.

* Happy Family Organics is now offering free mental health services.

* Wonder Press, Boulder’s fantastic pressed organic juice bar, is opening a new location in Denver.

* An organic farm in Maine — that doesn’t seem to exist — received a $1.2M PPP loan.

* Tomorrow at 4pm EST, we will be having our final Zoom call of the year for premium subscribers. The topic will be “What They are Not Telling You About Organic Certifiers,” and our guest will be Mark Kastel, founder of investigative watchdog group OrganicEye.

* We will be off for the rest of 2020 and returning on January 6th with a comprehensive look at the issues defining 2021.

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