The Economic Research Service (ERS) carries out research to better inform agricultural interests and the public about foreign and domestic agricultural economics and marketing. Primary responsibilities include administering a research program that helps public and private decision-makers stay informed of economic and policy issues involving food, farm production natural resources, rural development, and foreign demand and competition. Some ERS reports have covered controversial topics, including genetically-modified foods and mandatory labeling of food products showing consumers the origins of beef and other meats. The Administrator of ERS is Mary Bohman.
Although it wasn’t officially established until 1981, the Economic Research Service (ERS) functions date to the creation of the Division of Statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1863. Other early predecessors include the Section of Foreign Markets, the Bureau of Crop Estimates, and the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), which was established in 1922 to help farmers solve price and income problems. This agency set the stage for the ERS by organizing under one agency to explore economy of the nation’s food and agriculture system.
In the 1930s, Congress passed legislation on a variety of New Deal programs for agriculture. Acreage allotments and quotas, price-support loans, federal crop insurance for farmers, and regional research laboratories were established. The first programs for soil conservation and food assistance were created, and programs to benefit rural communities were also implemented. The USDA also assigned the Bureau of Agricultural Economics a central role in helping to establish department policy and for analyzing policy impacts during this period.
The USDA continued to centralize its agricultural policy in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1953, the agency reassigned the economic research and service functions of the BAE to two new agencies: the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Agricultural Research Service. In 1961, the USDA created the Economic Research Service to concentrate their research efforts within a single agency. In 1962, ERS expanded its research fields to include economic development, rural renewal, river basin and watershed programs, and resource policy.
The ERS merged briefly with the USDA’s statistical agency and was called the Economics, Statistics and Cooperatives Service in 1977. It was returned to agency status in 1981.
The Economic Research Service (ERS) conducts research to inform public and private decision-makers on economic and policy issues revolving around food, farming, natural resources, and rural development.
A staff of trained economists and social scientists conduct research, analyze food and commodity markets, produce policy studies, and develop economic and statistical indicators. The research program was designed to meet the informational needs of the USDA, as well as policy officials and the research community. ERS research and analysis are also used by the media, trade associations, public interest groups, and the general public. There are five major areas of research at ERS addressing specific strategic goals:
Toward these goals, the Food Economics Division conducts economic research on key areas such as: food consumption, food safety, food assistance, household food security, diet and health, structure of the food sector, and retail food prices. This division is also responsible for evaluating the nation’s food assistance and nutrition programs.
Market and Trade Economics is responsible for conducting economic research and analysis of domestic and global economic policy as regards to agriculture and trade. They monitor market indicators, provide forecasts and assess the technological, economic, policy and institutional forces influencing agricultural markets. Staff members work in the specialty areas of commodity and food markets, international economics, market structure and pricing, production economics and comparative economic systems. Recent research topics have included: analyzing and managing farm risk, assessing field crop biotechnology for market structure, pricing and trade, examining the economic implications of industrialization in agriculture, and enhancing capacity for commodity price forecasting and projections.
The Resource and Rural Economics Division conducts research in three areas: the interactions among natural resources, environmental quality and agricultural production and consumption; the economics of agricultural research and development and technological change; and the structure and financial performance of the agricultural sector in the rural economy. Researchers work in the areas of credit, finance and risk, industrial organization, natural resource and environmental economics, production economics and farm management, labor and demographics, rural and regional economics, welfare and poverty economics, research and development and technological change. Recent research topics have included: conservation and environmental programs, global resources, agricultural research and productivity, technology and sustainability, trade and environment, production practices and the environment, and credit markets.
The ERS Information Services manages and directs agency-wide information technology and communications activities and is responsible for publishing agency-sponsored reports and periodicals such as congressionally mandated studies, articles in professional journals, and the ERS magazine, Amber Waves.
From the Web Site of the Economic Research Service
Organizational Chart (pdf)
From 2002-2012, the Economic Research Service (ERS) distributed more than $33 million in grants, according to a query of USAspending.gov. The top recipients and their percentage of the total grants given during this time period are:
1. Cornell University $2,227,106 (7%)
2. University of California Davis $2,172,503 (6%)
3. Washington State University $1,728,900 (5%)
4. Iowa State University $1,568,607 (5%)
5. University of Maryland $822,743 (2%)
ERS Disputes Need for “Made in the USA” Labeling
In 2004, the Economic Research Service (ERS) issued a report that ran contrary to the wishes of some lawmakers and consumer groups who called for country-of-origin labeling for food products sold in the United States. The debate arose after outbreaks of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom led some to call for labels on foods so consumers could make more informed decisions about their purchases at grocery stores. The report found that making country-of-origin labeling, known as “COOL,” provisions mandatory would likely generate more costs than benefits. Congress incorporated COOL in the 2002 Farm Bill, which specified mandatory labeling rules by September 30, 2004. However, in response to growing criticism, Congress delayed these mandates to revisit some of the legislative requirements and perhaps make such labeling voluntary.
Country-of-Origin Labeling: Theory and Observation (by Krissoff, Kuchler, Nelson, Perry and Somwaru, ERS) (pdf)
ERS Economist Advocates for GMO Foods
While working as an economist for the ERS, Per Pinstrup-Andersen co-authored a report for the International Food Policy Research Institute that argued that genetically modified foods could help resolve hunger in developing countries. The report argued that increased agricultural productivity is not enough to address the problem of famine, and that people in developing countries need crops that are disease-resistant, can fend off insect predators, and can withstand severe environmental conditions in order to produce larger crop yields. GMO food can do all of these, the report argued.
Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy Over GM Crops (by Per Pinstrup-Andersen)
Katherine R. (Kitty) Smith, 2006-2011
Dr. Katharine R. “Kitty” Smith received a Bachelor of Science degree with an emphasis in biological sciences from the University of Maryland, where she also received a master’s and a PhD in agricultural and resource economics.
From 1989 to 1991, Smith was a senior fellow with the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy at Resources for the Future, and from 1993 to 1996, she was Policy Studies Program Director for the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. Smith was elected to serve on the American Agricultural Economics Association’s governing board of directors from 1990-1992. In her 25 years of service at the ERS, Smith has also held positions as Director of the Market and Trade Economics Division and Director of the Resource Economics Division.
Smith’s work has been published in several books, journals, USDA reports, and popular outlets.
Susan Offutt, 1996-2006
Susan Offutt received a PhD and an MS from Cornell University and a BS from Allegheny College. She was an assistant professor from 1982 to 1987 at the University of Illinois, where she taught econometrics and public policy in the agricultural economics department.
She also served as Chief of the Agriculture Branch at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). During her tenure at OMB, she coordinated budget and policy analyses of the 1990 farm bill for the Executive Office of the President. In 1992, she became the Executive Director of the National Research Council’s Board on Agriculture, which conducts studies on a range of topics in agricultural science. She took on the Administrator of ERS position in 1996.
After leaving ERS, Offutt became a Chief Economist for the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Acting Administrators, 1993-1996
John E. Lee, 1982-1993
J.B. Penn, 1977-1981 (As Associate Administrator of Economics)
Kenneth R. Farrell, 1977-1981 (As ESCS Administrator)
Quentin M. West, 1972-1977
Melvin L. Upchurch, 1965-1972
Nathan M. Koffsky, 1961-1965
On November 28, 2011, Mary E. Bohman took over as Administrator of the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), an agency that carries out economic research that helps public and private decision-makers stay informed of economic and policy issues involving food, farm production, natural resources, rural development and foreign demand and competition. She had been serving as Acting Administrator since July 2011.