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Michelle Obama's foray into food politics sparks industry debate over future of agribusiness

May 21, 2010 | 10:20 am

First Lady Michelle Obama with students working in his organic garden at the White House, unveiled March 2009 by AFP:Getty

This week, a coalition of food and beverage manufacturers -- including Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo -- signed up for First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity within a generation. Pledging to cut portion sizes and trim calories in current products and introduce new, more healthful options, they estimate they can slash 1 trillion calories by the end of 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015.

"This is precisely the kind of real private-sector commitment that we need," the first lady said at a news conference at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "And I hope that more will follow the example that they've set."

Don't hold your breath. If Big Manufacturers have joined the parade, Big Agribusiness and its suppliers are singing a different tune.

After the first lady planted the first White House organic vegetable garden in March 2009, a trade association that promotes pesticides, CropLife America, called for a letter-writing campaign to protest. In a news release, the association's top executives said they “shuddered at the thought that the White House garden will be organic. " They also urged the first lady to use the "crop protection products" that they said produce healthier and more economical food to feed the world.

President Obama responded by giving a CropLife executive -- Indian-born Islam Siddiqui, who held a fundraiser for Obama at his Virginia home -- a recess appointment as chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative's office. Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, hoping to protect tobacco farmers in his state, had blocked the nomination in hopes the White House would pressure Canada to change its anti-smoking policy.

I know, this is childish, perhaps boorish, and strains credibility. Still, this is how Washington -- or anyway, Bunning -- works. Known for precisely this kind of off-the-wall behavior, Bunning was forced to retire earlier this year. Now the media is feasting on his would-be Republican replacement Rand Paul. But that's another story.

Anyway, back to food.

Sensitive to the potential explosive reaction from agribusiness, the Obama administration declined journalist David Kirby's request for information about where the White House gets its meat, dairy and eggs -- how much from factory farms, how much from farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. 

"I can't really say I blame them. In fact, I can sympathize," he wrote. "The topic is that volcanic."

But Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," argues in the June 10 issue of the New York Review that Michelle Obama's "deepening involvement in food issues" could spark a new sensibility about eating in the same way that Lady Bird Johnson's "highway beautification," while sounding benign, sparked a new appreciation of the environment.

As he put it, never underestimate a determined first lady.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House organic garden with students. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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