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Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan Kicks Off Her 2011 College Tour

Posted by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in Food and Nutrition Farming
Feb 21, 2017
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan meets with local producers at the North Carolina University's student run Farmer's Market in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan meets with local producers at the North Carolina University's student run Farmer's Market in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.

Before kicking off this year’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ college tour in North Carolina, I took a moment to reflect on why these college visits are so important. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, we must out-educate the world in order to win the future.  Indeed, during the eight years that I spent as a college professor, I was constantly reminded that investing in our nation’s young minds is investing in our nation’s future. With this in mind, this year, members of USDA leadership will join the Secretary and myself in engaging America’s youth in a critical dialogue about our food system, our rural economy, and the economic opportunities associated with local and regional markets.

I began this year’s college tour with stops at North Carolina A & T University and North Carolina State University for an important reason. Students at both of these universities have been working with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), on an incredible campaign--North Carolina’s 10% Campaign. The 10% Campaign challenges North Carolinians to spend just 10 percent of their existing food dollars on goods produced by North Carolina’s own farmers and ranchers. By doing this, North Carolinians would infuse approximately $3.5 billion dollars annually into the local state economy.  This effort represents exactly the kind of exciting innovation that the Secretary and I think is key to rural revitalization.

While on campus, I gave a lecture to students on why agricultural policy mattered to their lives and helped them to understand how they could get involved. I explained the myriad opportunities for internships and employment at USDA, and encouraged them to look into careers as agricultural economists, agricultural journalists, agricultural engineers, and, of course, as farmers and ranchers.

During the tour, I utilized polling technology that allowed audience members to use hand-held remotes, called i-clickers, to vote on multiple choice questions that I asked. On every college campus I visit, participants are shocked to find out that nutrition assistance—not farm subsidies—makes up the majority of the USDA budget (almost 4.5 times the amount of any other expenditure). In fact, I’ve never had an audience correctly answer my question of what makes up the largest share of the USDA budget. This, to me, underscores the necessity of this national conversation. The next generation needs to better understand agricultural policy if they hope to provide solutions to the challenges of our future.

But the excitement didn’t end there. We also brought the good news with us that USDA is supplying North Carolina State University (NCSU) with a grant to develop an obesity prevention program that increases access to healthy food and safe places for physical activity. This announcement was delivered as part of the first anniversary celebration of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.

This commitment to research will help prevent obesity, as well as create a healthier environment not only in North Carolina, but across the country.

This year, along with Secretary Vilsack and other subcabinet members, we intend to travel to over forty campuses. It will be a fun and informative tour, so check back to the USDA blog or read our twitter to find out where we’re headed next!

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan does an interview with the North Carolina student newspaper reporter in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan does an interview with the North Carolina student newspaper reporter in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan tours the North Carolina University's student run farmer's market in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Kathleen Merrigan tours the North Carolina University's student run farmer's market in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 9, 2011.
Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Farming

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Jan Dietrick
May 11, 2011

If your campus tour doesn't result in informing youth about the issues of genetically modified crops and contamination of livestock from pollution by fracking compounds, you are only creating a cynical and misleading distraction from the reality of our food supply. The Obama's and every one of you need to stop your denial about these health and environmental issues in the over-glorification of "innovation" and "clean energy". In the case of GM food, how do you know that the epidemic obesity and diabetes isn't related to micronutrient deficiences from chelation by glyphosate in non-target crops along with perverted nitrogen metabolism from urea fertilizer as Dr. Benbrook has raised? In the case of meat products laced with any of hundreds of toxic hydrocarbons, how do you know that their subnormal physical capacity isn't the result of liver, endocrine and nerve damage? Why blame the inactivity of innocent children instead of greed-driven corporate leaders who harass citizen heroes and scientists who want to speak out or publish inconvenient findings about our food supply? Are you telling the youth the truth that if they choose a career in agricultural research that it will be cut short by powerful corporations if they pursue it with integrity?

Excerpts from interview with Don Huber:

"If there is something that happens to break that binding [glyphosate's chelation of mineral nutrients] then it can again be released and available for root uptake and plant damage. It depends on how long it survives in the soil...pH is a big factor in stability and the other is clay content....Most elements will be reduced around 60 percent and a few of them in the 70 percent range. In this way the plant can be placed under a fairly significant nutrient deficiency even though the nutrients may be in the soil--the plant can't utilize them because of glyphosate's's a very powerful herbicide but also a very potent biocide. It's toxic to your legume module bacteria for nitrogen fixation, also quite toxic to the orgamisms that make manganese and iron available for plant uptake, and those are critical nutrients. It stimulates the soil pathogens that do the killing from a weed control standpoint, but it also stimulates some so that you're essentially making a super-pathogen to kill a weed. Then you leave that super-pathogen in the soil, which also attacks other plants later on in its rotation....[they] found that soybean meal was just loaded with it. Any fermented product seems to encourage this organism. It's a very good synergist with other pathogens....This new organism may be an opportunist that is able to take advantage of a weakened condition and then really move forward....Glyphosate can nullify the genetic resistance for Clavibacter just like it can sugar beets for Rhizoctonia or Fusarium in same plants.

"When you realize how little it takes to injure a susceptible crop this is especially important--in one study it only took a 40th of a pound per acre. That's 12 grams or 4/10ths of an ounce spread over an entire acre to prevent 80-90 percent of your root-to-top translocation of the essential nutrients iron, manganese and zinc. Those three very critical micronutrients are going to affect photosynthesis as well as defense reactions and energy reactions in the plant. Glyphosate is a very powerful growth regulator chemical. Even though it can be immobilized readily [it does not degrade and] it doesn't always stay there.

"[I anticipate] high infertility and abortions in animals fed with corn and soybean feeds containing high populations of this organism....If you look at the USDA's anticipated yield on corn that they put out in August, and then subtract the actual yields reported in January, you come up with almost a billion bushels less, even though we had near ideal conditions for harvest. All you have to do to document that there was a short crop last year is look at the price....My request to the Secretary [Vilsack] was for the help we needed to get resources [to study this problem], and to ask him to delay any decision on the Roundup Ready alfalfa until some things could be checked out. One reason is that we were seeing a marked increase in susceptibility to Goss' wilt in previously Goss' wilt-resistant corn. Critical research was needed to document the epidemiology of this new organism....A perennial crop like alfalfa can be very susceptible to a closely related common soil borne bacterium to Goss' wilt. If the technology nullifies resistance to this bacterial disease like it can for corn and it is compatible with the new organism, then you have a situation where you can compromise the crop totally because you don't have any way to get it out. With an annual crop like corn or soybean, or like we had with the Texas male-sterile gene, it was a matter of just going back to our old genetics and eliminating those with the gene from the breeding program....With a perennial, insect-pollinated plant, I don't know of any way to eliminate it once it's distributed throughout an area as it could be very readily....

"Each time you put a foreign gene in, you're adding another stress to the plant--commonly referred to as a yield-drag aspect, which is very well documented....I believe we should try to follow scientific principles and use a lot of caution until we understand what's going on in the whole process....There's a fair amount of toxicological data indicating that there are very serious concerns with some of the products. That's also one of the things that has been looked at with infertility and spontaneous abortions. There is an increasing level of glyphosate in our food chain, and with the toxicological data that's now available, the levels are often many times the level that would send up a very serious concern from a clinical laboratory standpoint. Some of that data shows that quite low levels of glyphosate are very toxic to liver cells, kidney cells, testicular cells, and the endocrine hormone system, and it becomes important because all of the systems are interrelated. We're finding fairly significant levels of glyphosate in manure. You have to ask how the chicken got it or how the hog or cattle got it, and of course, that's through their feed. Is it all moving through the animal or is it also into their meat and other tissues? We really don't have a lot of that data.

"[We recently learned that] glyphosate continues to accumulate in the perennial plant as long as the plant lives. That it continues to accumulate maybe six to eight years, and then finally reaches the level to damage cell walls. [Glyphosate moves out of the weeds' root system and] as that weed decomposes, it again releases glyphosate for root uptake into the adjacent [ornamental plants]. A lot of research on safety of genetic engineering is done outside of this country....I think the 26 entomologists who sent their letter to EPA in 2009 stated it aptly when they said that objective data wasn't available to the EPA because the materials haven't been available to them or that they're denied the opportunity to publish their data. [I can't name the researchers who discovered the pathogen] because there's no need for them to have the harassment or be inundated the way I've been....There are scientists who have experienced a situation where their career became very short or they had to change paths in order to survive and stay in the system."

My father Everett Dietrick was forced to leave his work doing University research because he was not allowed to publish the proven successes of his work with biological pest control due to the power the pesticide companies held over the Dean of Agriculture who told my father there would always be chemicals capable of killing any natural enemy that he wanted to promote to farmers. My dad's biggest research project was a survey of the arthropods in California alfalfa fields. See the studies and the University bulletin he did with Robert van den Bosch to demonstrate the value of untreated alfalfa to all of California agriculture. 93% of alfalfa hay has not been treated with herbicide. Certainly you and the Secretary are WELL aware that it does not get that weedy. You cannot possibly actually believe Monsanto's lies. Especially if the soil is fed with adequate trace minerals it has been abundantly demonstrated in grass-fed systems that the weeds that do grow in it enhance it's quality as animal feed. What is the craziness that growers will follow the Pied Piper Monsanto into growing unhealthy instead of healthy alfalfa stands? Why in God's name would your Department allow them to be so duped? It portends frighteningly for the future mainstream food supply and you simply cannot remain silent about it any longer! You need to be honest at least with the youth.

The second issue that has to immediately come to the top of your agenda is the contamination of pasture and pastured commercial livestock by the pollution from the dumping of massive amounts of hydrocarbons coming up in the fracking fluid used to mine natural gas. How can I know know that even organically grown, grass-fed animals from the most pristine plateaus of Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, etc etc and soon to be New York and Pennsylvania weren't heavily contaminated by the local water supply and the farmer not even be aware of it? I special ordered grassfed supposedly extremely high quality organ meats from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, for my ailing father at the suggestion of a naturopathic doctor. I didn't ask the farmer's wife how far away their pasture is from natural gas drilling. Your advocacy for rural development is an incomprehensible farce so long as you are silent while the ruling corporations are swiftly turning rural America into countless strings of massive toxic dumpsites without any regard to local wells, downstream public water supplies and permanent contamination of large aquifers. It is within your clear responsibility to make sure that food with that kind of toxic load does not go to market!

Excerpts from one of many observers about the horrendous effects to animal agriculture from fracking:

"Veterinarian Liz Chandler of Rifle, Colorado, told Scientific American she has seen a bull go sterile, a herd of beef cows stop going into heat, pigs stop going into heat, and sheep bred on an organic dairy farm having inexplicable still births.

So what should consumers do? They could blacklist farms located near natural gas wells. Joe Holtz, General Manager of the Park Slope Food Coop, in an open letter, wrote to the state that they would not purchase food from farms anywhere near drilling sites, for fear of contamination. While this is a completely understandable response this type of consumer backlash could be devastating to farmers, and it might mean extinction for the NY dairy farmer."

I'm so sorry I have to add some expression of the depth of my disappointment about the election of Barack Obama and your appointment in the USDA. Finally, there was an encouragement to be hopeful that there would be people of enough integrity to stand up to the corporatocracy no matter what. It's way more painful to see my hopes dashed into bitter disappointment than to numb my consciousness for 8 years of George Bush and his ripping apart of our nation. The former of course is still preferable, but the emotional stress of watching such unbecoming compromises by people I so much respected is hard to bear.