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A New Secretary of Agriculture
February 4, 2005
Last week, former Nebraska governor Mike Johanns assumed the post of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Born on a dairy farm, Johanns hails from a state that is fourth in the nation in agricultural exports and which, under his tenure, made significant export advances in Asia. Johanns takes the helm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the nation’s agricultural imports grow to equal agricultural exports for the first time in 50 years.
Johanns’ nomination was hailed by agricultural trade organizations, including the National Food Processors Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which said, “We look forward to working with Governor Johanns to provide farmers, consumers and the environment with the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.” Sustainable farming and environmental groups saw the selection of Johanns as more of the same. “As a former corporate leader, Secretary Veneman did little to make our hazardous, pesticide-based food system healthier, fairer or more sustainable,” said Skip Spitzer, of Pesticide Action Network North America. “Secretary Johanns will likely continue the administration’s efforts to open agricultural markets without restraining the market-distorting food giants that rule the food system.”
In 2003 Johanns reignited controversy in Nebraska when he called for loosening of the state’s 22 year-old ban on corporate farming. The ban originated as a citizen initiative by the Nebraska Farmers Union and a coalition of family farm advocacy groups to protect family farms, and has withstood repeated lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. Johanns contended that it stifled agricultural growth in Nebraska and proposed a “Gubernatorial study,” that was defeated in the state legislature. John Hansen, of the Nebraska Farmers Union, saw the attack on the ban as a defining moment for Johanns. “He showed his hand for the first time... It showed he was on the side of big business, not the small farmer.”
While governor, Johanns successfully promoted Nebraska agriculture in trade delegations to many Asian countries. During his tenure Nebraska exports to China more than doubled, from $US 51 million in 1999 to $US 110 million in 2004. Trade was the focus of several questions from reporters during Johanns’ first press conference. The new Secretary of Agriculture promised “to do everything I can to reopen trade” in negotiations underway with Japan to allow import of U.S. beef after BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or Mad Cow Disease) appeared in the U.S. Johanns declined, however, to say he would advocate increased BSE testing of U.S. cattle.
As Governor of Nebraska, Johanns was also closely involved in the drafting of the 2002 Farm Bill. As Secretary of Agriculture he will oversee the drafting of the next Farm Bill, due in 2008, in which major funding cuts are expected. Johanns suggested that he would be bound by these budget constraints when asked if he would increase funding for the Conservation Security Program. The program is strongly supported by environmental and wildlife conservation groups who have also complained that it has not been adequately funded.
Like many others in the Bush Administration, Johanns is a deeply religious person and has been criticized by civil liberties groups for displays of religious favoritism as an elected official. Johanns signed a proclamation declaring “March for Jesus Day” in 1999 and later endorsed “Back to the Bible Day” in honor of a fundamentalist Christian group. He refused, however, to sign a proclamation honoring “Earth Religion Awareness Day,” an event that was oriented toward pagan religion and organized by a Wiccan group, saying that he would not sign “something that I personally disagree with.”
Sources: “New Agriculture Secretary Viewed as a Surprise Choice” December 16, 2004, Southwest Farm Press’ “A Farm-Raised USDA Choice.” Washington Post, December 16, 2004; “Neb. Governor Tapped as Agriculture Chief, USA Today, December 3, 2004; Protecting Initiative 300, Center for Rural Affairs, http://www.cfra.org, Transcript of Tele-news Conference with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Washington DC, January 24, 2005, USDA,
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