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Ann Veneman, 51, no stranger to "free trade," genetic engineered crops and corporate agribusiness, has been named by George W. Bush to be his administration's new Secretary of Agriculture.

Beginning with the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) in 1986, she rose to deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs. She also was one of the early negotiators of the North American FreeTrade Agreement (NAFTA) and from 1991 to 1993 served as the deputy undersecretary which at the time was the highest post at the department ever held by a woman.

In 1995 California Governor Pete Wilson selected the Modesto, California native to head California's Department of Food and Agriculture, after the previous director resigned over charges he did not report hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm income.

Numerous press reports on Veneman's nomation to be USDA Secretary have claimed that she was the first woman in California to hold that high position in the state, however, such claims are erroneous and dishonor the memory of Rose Bird. Appointed to that position by former Governor Jerry Brown, Bird served with distinction until being named Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Later, she was denied further service on the court due to a well-financed corporate agribusiness recall campaign in retaliation, due in large part for her progressive initiatives while heading the state's Food and Agriculture department.

While Veneman has considerable experience within the USDA bureaucracy, her appointment is also a political reward for the Central Valley, where Bush concentrated his California campaign and received much of his financial support. She was an early Bush supporter and was among six California Republicans named in mid-1999 to his exploratory committee in the state. At the GOP convention last summer, she was on the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush. Veneman's parents were peach growers in Stanislaus County in the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento. Her father, John Veneman, was a Republican state assemblyman and undersecretary of health, education and welfare in the Nixon administration.

Currently she is an attorney with Nossaman, Guthner, Knox and Elliott in Sacramento where she specializes in food, agriculture, environment, technology, and trade related issues. Regarded by many as a protege of Richard Lyng, who was agriculture secretary during President Ronald Reagan's second term, Veneman will now oversee the department's 42 agencies, with a budget of more than $60 billion and a workforce of 111,000 employees.

Between her service with the FAS, during which time she help negotiate the Uruguay round talks for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and California's Department of Food and Agriculture she worked for the influential lobbying and law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow. Among her clients was Dole Foods Co., the world's largest producer of fruits and vegetables. She also has served on the board of directors of Calgene, a Davis, California company, later acquired by Monsanto, which pioneered genetically altered tomatoes and, in 1987, was the first company to obtain a USDA permit to field test a genetically engineered crop.

Veneman is a strong advocate of high tech's role in farming, from e-commerce over the Internet to genetic engineering. She told an agricultural biotechnology conference this year: "We simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology." Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute and former lobbyist for Monsanto, has praised the pick of Venemen as "a really good start" for the Bush administration. She said Venemen "will bring a modern view of the Department of Agriculture into that job."

Venemanís emphasis on trade has drawn strong praise from individuals like Bill Pauli, president of the 90,000-member California Farm Bureau Federation. "What we're really encouraged by is not only does she understand California agriculture, which is really important to us, but she understands national agriculture," Pauli told the Associated Press. "When you talk to agriculture people about what government can do to help, it's `help us open markets that are closed to us,'" Veneman said in a 1995 interview. "I think that's a real legitimate role that we can play."

Veneman is expected to be easily confirmed as the new USDA Secretary owing to the fact that she enjoys "bipartisan" support in the Congress and because of her known expertise in international agricultural trade.

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Michael R. Meuser
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