The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a cabinet-level agency that oversees the American farming industry. USDA duties range from helping farmers with price support subsidies, to inspecting food to ensure the safety of the American public. The department seeks to expand overseas markets for U.S. agricultural products and support international economic development; provide financing needed to create jobs; improve housing, utilities and infrastructure in rural America; and improve nutrition and health by providing food assistance and education. USDA farm subsidies have been the subject of much controversy for decades as critics say the assistance is distributed unevenly and manipulates the agricultural market. The department has also come under scrutiny for its failure to adequately protect American consumers from tainted foods that are not processed properly at slaughterhouses and other facilities. The current Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack.
The earliest precursor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office, headed by Commissioner of Patents Henry Ellsworth in 1839. It was Ellsworth’s urging that led to the creation of the division; the Commissioner had a strong interest in agriculture and had collected and distributed seeds through members of Congress and agricultural societies.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Growing up on a farm, Lincoln was a strong advocate for homesteading, railroad expansion, and land grants to fund agricultural and engineering colleges. He often praised technological advancements in agriculture, such as using horse-drawn machines instead of manual labor and the potential usefulness of steam plows.
In 1865, a case of imported animals that had been identified as diseased livestock prompted Congress to pass an act to quarantine imported animals. Congress passed the act, but gave regulation duties to the Treasury Department, which did little to fix the problem. As a result, veterinarians and ranchers pushed for a more regulated solution.
In 1884, Congress established the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), the predecessor to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, within the USDA to prevent diseased animals from being used in food and food products. Soon foreign markets began placing restrictions on U.S. food exports, prompting the creation of the 1890 Food Inspection Act that attempted to detect bad meat imports, as well as poor quality meat within the U.S. beef industry.
Upton Sinclair’s seminal work, The Jungle, published in 1905, would have a profound effect on federal regulation of the meat-packing industry. The book described the conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking houses in gruesome detail, and Sinclair gained widespread public support in urging President Theodore Roosevelt to have government inspectors review slaughterhouses and to pass the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act.
Enforcement of the Food and Drug Act fell to the Bureau of Chemistry (a predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration), while regulation of the Meat Inspection Act went to the BAI. Both agencies were under the USDA umbrella. In 1912, the BAI also began inspecting eggs intended for use by the Navy, although there were no inspections of eggs for the general public until the Food and Drug Administration took on those duties in the 1920s.
The USDA took on a greater role during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created programs, including the Rural Housing Service and the Rural Utilities Service, aimed at helping rural farmers and communities stricken by poverty.
In the 1950s the USDA was reorganized under President Dwight Eisenhower, who eliminated the BAI and other divisions and created the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) to assume their responsibilities. The Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957 to provide federal oversight of the rapidly growing poultry industry.
During the 1950s and 1960s the focus on consumer protection and safety shifted from contaminated meat and food products to mislabeling and adulteration of products from chemical additives. At that time, food inspections consisted primarily of visual evidence of contamination. Newer products created with more complex processing methods made in larger volumes caused new contamination concerns from pesticides, residue from drugs given to animals, and preservatives. In 1958, the Food Additive Amendment was passed to address these safety concerns.
The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 amended federal laws to require states to conduct more adequate inspections of meat to raise quality standards. The law forced states to develop meat inspection programs that were as good as the federal government’s. If the state could not create one, the federal system would be applied. By 1968, poultry and meat inspection programs merged into the USDA’s Agriculture and Research Service. In 1972, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was established to handle the regulatory responsibilities of the Agriculture and Research Service. These responsibilities were transferred in 1977 to the newly created Food Safety and Quality Service, which in 1981 was renamed the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
In 1993 an outbreak of E.coli killed four and caused 400 people to fall ill after eating at Jack in the Box restaurants. This incident prompted the FSIS to use a more scientific method to inspect foods, the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems, which aimed to reduce microbial pathogens in raw products. This change made held industry accountable for producing safe food, and the government responsible for establishing safe food standards and maintaining proper oversight and enforcement.
A 2003 case of Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States led to a long and intense investigation that ultimately led to the destruction of 255 animals suspected of being at-risk, but which ultimately tested negative for BSE.
History of the U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA (US Recall News)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers programs to help American farmers and ensure food safety for consumers. USDA aid includes distributing price supports and other subsidies to farmers, inspecting food processed at agricultural facilities, working to expand overseas markets for U.S. agricultural products, providing financing to expand job opportunities and improve housing, utilities, and infrastructure in rural America, and providing food assistance and nutrition education.
USDA Agencies and Offices:
Food and Nutrition Service: The FNS provides access to food and improves the diets of needy Americans through nutrition education and food assistance programs. The agency is responsible for the food stamp program, as well as programs that address the nutrition and feeding of women, children and infants, and food distribution. Through its distribution programs, the FNS is also able to subsidize the agricultural industry by purchasing and distributing surplus crops. The agency often finds itself at the center of ideological battles that question the role of the state in dealing with poverty and welfare and interference in the economy.
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Part of the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, the CNPP provides dietary information to educate Americans. The center develops and promotes dietary guidance linking scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers. The center publishes dietary guidelines every five years and the food pyramid. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides guidance on food and physical activity choices. In 2005, the USDA released the MyPyramid food guidance system to replace the original Food Guide Pyramid. In a move to make the graphic more relatable, the pyramid was changed to a plate with the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: APHIS is responsible for regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities. Additional areas of assistance include helping to contain and eradicate agricultural pests and diseases, and developing science-based standards with trading partners to ensure the country’s agricultural exports.
Food Safety and Inspection Service: FSIS is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe from disease, and works to ensure that meat, poultry and egg products are labeled and packaged correctly to minimize contamination. FSIS uses scientifically based microbiological approaches to detect, research, and prevent food-borne hazards, including Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. FSIS laboratories also use data collection and reports, and risk assessments to guide risk-based inspection, which applies risk analysis principles to manage inspection programs. The agency also works with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to strengthen surveillance systems to detect intentional contamination of meat and poultry products.
United States Forest Service: The USFS is responsible for managing public lands in national forests and grasslands. The U.S. forest system covers 193 million acres of public land, including 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and research and experimental forests. The agency maintains and cultivates these lands for public use and national interests through activities ranging from scientific research and development to firefighting, recreation maintenance, wilderness and wildlife protection, ecosystem management, and timber production. USFS policy was historically centered on timber production, but has evolved to include ecosystem management and sustainability and the preservation of recreation areas, wilderness, minerals, water, grazing, fish, and wildlife. In addition to the funding and management of the USFS, the agency has been the subject of debate and controversy for its fire management policy, logging practices, relationship with the timber industry, ecological sustainability and environmental protection, road building, wilderness and wildlife policies, watershed protection, and policies regarding local ownership issues.
National Resources Conservation Service: The NRCS administers the government’s conservation policy and practices by providing technical and financial assistance to private landowners and users. Aid includes economic incentive payments and assistance in meeting regulatory requirements. Although responsible for the regulation of private lands, the NRCS also assists with planning and implementing conservation projects together with tribes, local and state governments, and other federal agencies. Areas of technical and scientific expertise include animal husbandry, clean water programs, ecological sciences, engineering, resource economics, and the social sciences.
Rural Development: The USDA’s Rural Development (RD) division has been called the venture capitalist for rural America. The division includes a number of agencies created in the Great Depression that were successful in supporting the agriculture industry, electrifying rural America, and building community resources. The division operates more than 40 rural development programs focusing on housing, community facilities, water and waste management, and business and technological development. A 2007 Washington Post article that found that metropolitan areas received more than three times the amount of aid provided to poor or shrinking rural areas led to increasing criticism of the agency.
Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Programs: The RDHCFP, also known as the Rural Housing Service (RHS), is an agency within Rural Development that administers aid to rural communities in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and grants for housing and community facilities. Programs focus on home ownership and restoration, farm worker housing, multi-family housing projects, community facilities, and rental assistance. According to a 2004 CRS Report to Congress, rural areas account for a “disproportionate share of the nation’s substandard housing.” In rural areas, homeownership is the principal form of housing, but residents are faced with higher development costs, limited access to mortgage credit, and pay more of their household income for housing than urban residents.
Rural Utilities Service: The RUS is an agency within Rural Development responsible for providing public utilities—including water, waste, telephone and electricity—to rural areas through public-private partnerships. The agency administers loan, loan guarantee and grant programs to eligible populations.
Farm Service Agency: The FSA was formed to support farmers in times of need with loans, commodity price supports, conservation payments and disaster relief assistance. The aid is meant to protect farmers from the risks that come with growing food that relies on market, food preferences, and the weather. The agency aims to assist farmers in adjusting production to meet demand in order to create a steady price range of agricultural products for both farmers and consumers. The agency also provides credit to agricultural producers who are unable to receive private commercial credit, in addition to giving grants to those that qualify. The FSA also works with farmers and their debtors to try to arbitrate agreements and head off foreclosure. In the last few decades, the FSA has been a source of controversy for the way assistance has been distributed, and the growing number of imported foodstuffs that Americans now consume.
Agricultural Marketing Service: The AMS helps farmers gain greater participation in overseas agricultural markets by promoting the sale of American agricultural products, including food, fiber, and specialty crops. The AMS provides testing, standardization, grading, market news services, and aids in oversees marketing agreement and orders. The agency also administers research and promotion programs, and purchases commodities for federal food programs. AMS also enforces certain federal laws such as the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act and the Federal Seed Act.
Foreign Agricultural Service: The FAS is the Agriculture Department’s lead agency in international activities. The agency opens new markets and increases U.S. agriculture’s competitiveness overseas. The FAS works on market development, trade agreements and negotiations, and analysis of market information. It also administers USDA’s export credit guarantee and food aid programs. The FAS seeks to support international economic development and trade capacity building and improve the global sanitary and phytosanitary system to facilitate agricultural trade. The service also supports economic development through technical and development assistance.
Economic Research Service: The ERS is responsible for developing and sharing information and research within the USDA and to other departments. ERS research informs public and private decision makers on economic and policy issues revolving around food, farming, natural resources, and rural development. Staff members are trained economists and social scientists who 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 information and analysis is also used by trade associations, public interest groups, and the general public.
Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration: The GIPSA is charged with facilitating the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals and grains, oilseeds, and related agricultural products. The agency ensures fair trade practices and competitive market conditions in livestock, meat and poultry industries through various oversight, inspection, analysis, auditing, price protection and payment programs. GIPSA’s Packers and Stockyards Program (P&SP) regulates and enforces competitive conditions in meat and livestock markets, while the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) deals with marketing, inspection, standardization, and quality assessment of grain and related products. The GIPSA has been the battleground for clashes between producers on one side and the slaughterhouse and packing industry on the other.
Agricultural Research Service: The ARS is the principal research agency of the USDA. It conducts more than 1,200 research and development programs designed to explore and resolve agriculture-related issues that affect the American farming industry and the quality of food consumed by Americans. The ARS focuses on research and development in nutrition, food quality, animal production, crop production, and natural resources and sustainability. The agency aims to provide the public with up-to-date information from studies that will be beneficial to consumers and the private agricultural sector.
National Institute of Food and Agriculture: Known formerly as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was created in 2010 following passage of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. NIFA replaces the CSREES, created in 1994, which was itself a consolidation of the USDA Cooperative State Research Service and the Extension Service. NIFA funds and facilitates research, education and extension programs on agriculture, environment and human health at state and local levels, primarily through land grant universities and other partner organizations. In recent years, reform initiatives have aimed at trimming funding for the agency—and phasing out federal formula funding in favor of competitive grants. Since the late 19th century, formula funding for public agricultural research has been controlled at the state level by scientists who determine priorities for local research needs and issues. Competitive grants are directed at the federal level, with a research agenda that tends to be more national in scope, but that can arguably be influenced by lobbyists and special interests.
National Agricultural Statistics Service: The NASS conducts hundreds of surveys each year as part of the Agriculture Department’s farm census. The agency analyzes findings from surveys that cover production and supplies of food and fiber, prices paid and received by farmers, farm labor and wages, farm finances, chemical use, and changes in the demographics of U.S. producers.
From the Web Site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
The Agriculture Department’s 2013 budget authority is $155 billion, according to the FY 2013 proposed budget. The 2013 discretionary level is $24 billion, which is the same as it was in 2012, representing a $2 billion decrease from 2011 that reduced or terminated selected programs, and was intended to achieve savings through administrative efficiencies and eliminating earmarks.
From 2002-2012, the USDA gave more than $301 billion in direct payments in over 4 million transactions, according to a query of USAspending.gov. Of those direct payments, 56% came from the Food and Nutrition Service, and nearly 39% came from the Farm Service Agency. The USDA also spent more than $227 billion in insurance payments, 97% of which went to individuals.
Grants given by the USDA totaled more than $217.3 billion from 2002-2012, with nearly 83% of the grants administered by the Food and Nutrition Service, according to USAspending.gov. During this time period, the USDA also spent more than $48 billion on contracting.
The top contractor recipients and their percentage of all contracting during this time period include:
1. Archer Daniels Midland Company $2,104,160,102 (4.38%)
2. Cal Western Packaging Corporation $1,028,367,984 (2.14%)
3. Bunge Limited $830,462,340 (1.73%)
4. Cargill Incorporated $815,637,385 (1.70%)
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that USDA subsidies in the United States totaled $246.7 billion from 1995-2009 and that the top 10% collected 74% of all subsidies. The Environmental Working Group had previously found, in 2007, that while the USDA’s Farm Service Agency is supposed to provide subsidies to farmers across the country, most of this federal support goes to just 19 congressional districts, accounting for half of federal crop subsidies paid between 2003 and 2005. During this same time period, two-thirds of farmers didn’t collect any farm bill subsidies at all.
EWG Farm Subsidy Database (Environmental Working Group)
Horse Slaughter Controversy
Congress angered animal rights advocates in December 2011 when it lifted a ban on funding horsemeat inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The ban was imposed in 2006 as a way to shut down the last remaining horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. But supporters of the new bill said the ban had produced unintended consequences, including a growing population of neglected horses during hard economic times.
The legislation did not include funding for USDA inspections, leaving it to the agency to come up with the money. Since no USDA inspectors were funded, that makes horsemeat illegal because processing plants must meet federal standards. (If they can’t be inspected, they can’t be legal.) Yet, entrepreneurs hoped to open a slaughterhouse either in Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Missouri (although the latter looked unlikely by July 2012).
It was estimated a new facility could process up to 200,000 horses a year, with the meat being shipped to countries in Europe and Asia, including France and Japan.
Renewing Horse Slaughter Revives Controversy (by Frank Buchman, The Emporia Gazette)
Controversy Surrounds Slaughterhouses for Horses (Georgia Point)
Lifting of Horse Slaughter Ban Reignites Debate (by Barry Shlachter, Star-Telegram)
Nebraska Bill Renews Debate Over Killing Horses for Food (by Jed Portman, PBS)
Plans for Missouri Horse Slaughter Facility Fail (by Alicia Graef, Care2)
Ongoing Controversy over Genetically Modified Foods
The controversy over genetically modified (GM) foods has raged for decades, as farmers, biotechnology companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations and scientists have debated the advantages and disadvantages of GM.
GM foods are those possessing genes manipulated by scientists to give them more desirable traits, such as resistance to insecticides used on farms. GM can also mean plants that grow faster or possess added nutrients and vitamins, according to supporters.
Some consumers oppose GM foods, claiming not enough testing has been done to know what the long-term implications of GM might be for humans. Organic farmers have complained too, citing problems with their fields becoming contaminated with GM crops.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been in the thick of the GM controversy, approving numerous types of GM crops for production by large agricultural operations.
In 2011, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack called for the two sides to cooperate more and resolve their differences, hoping for “a solution that acknowledged agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.”
Genetically modified food controversies (Wikipedia)
The GM Debate (Food Navigator)
Controversy Erupts Over Genetically-Modified Foods (Daily Breeze)
USDA Ag Secretary Calls For Compromise on GM Debate (by Jill Ettinger, Organic Authority)
GMOs and Peru: The Debate Comes to a Head (by Carrie Burggraf, Council on Hemispheric Affairs)
USDA Allows Products Labeled as “Organic” to Contain Synthetic Additives
Supporters of organic foods were outraged at the USDA in 2011 when it was discovered the USDA had allowed synthetic additives in certified organic products.
One example cited in the media was Horizon Organic Milk with DHA Omega-3, which was not an approved additive for organic food, according to The Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog for the organic industry.
The Cornucopia Institute has sued infant formula manufacturers and Dean Foods, manufacturer of Horizon dairy products, for adding unapproved additives.
Organic Products that Contain Unapproved Additives are the Source of Controversy (by Max Goldberg, Living Maxwell)
Finger Pointing and Name Calling: The Organic Movement’s New Face (by Nina Rubin, Star Chefs)
If You Eat Organic Food, Have You Just Been Betrayed? (by Joseph Mercola, mercola.com)
Organic Milk Actually Becomes Organic (by Angelique Chao, Simple, Good, and Tasty)
Excluding Soft Drinks from Food Stamp Purchases
The USDA frustrated officials in New York and other states in 2011 when it denied a request for New York City to exclude soft drinks from food stamp purchases.
The pilot project called for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from the list of approved food items.
The USDA decision affected not only New York State but also California, Nebraska, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont, and Texas, which had either requested the same permission or urged Congress to grant states more flexibility to set SNAP standards.
States were motivated to exclude soft drinks in an effort to tackle the problem of childhood obesity, which is exacerbated by sugary beverages. It was estimated that $4 billion a year in SNAP funds were used to buy sodas.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Soda, and USDA Policy (Kelly D. Brownell and David S. Ludwig, JAMA)
The Debate Over Food Stamps (by Alfred Lubrano, Philadelphia Inquirer)
USDA/Meat Industry Controversy over E. Coli Ban
Representatives of the meat industry reacted angrily toward a 2011 proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ban six strains of E. coli from food.
Labeled as adulterants, the six strains are related to Shiga toxins and can cause severe illness and fatalities, with young children and seniors most at-risk. Food safety advocates hailed the move, while cattlemen said it was unrealistic for the USDA to think its plan would work.
The American Meat Institute, which represents large meatpackers, said the plan was “premised upon the notion that the government can make products safe by banning a pathogen. That view is not supported by science.” (They were neglecting the fact that in the 1990s, one strain of E. coli was banned, and that resulted in half as many deaths from that strain as there once had been.) In June 2012, the USDA confirmed that it would implement routine testing for the “Big Six.”
Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia Coli in Certain Raw Beef Products (Federal Register)
Jolley: More About that controversial nSTEC statement by the USDA (by Chuck Jolley, Drovers Cattle Network)
Food Safety Advocates, Meat Industry Debate USDA's Declaration On E. Coli Strains (The Hagstrom Report)
Federal Plan Announced to Protect Grand Canyon From Uranium Mining
In February 2011, the Obama administration announced a draft plan to protect one million acres of public land around Grand Canyon National Park from new uranium mining for 20 years. The proposal, announced by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, was one of four alternatives in the draft plan. Mining supporters claimed the move would prevent the creation of new jobs, while environmentalists countered that mining would harm the environment and adversely affect canyon tourism. In May 2009, the Bureau of Land Management had authorized several new uranium exploration permits near the Grand Canyon, despite a congressional resolution the previous year barring new claims near the national park. In March 2008, three conservation groups filed a lawsuit to stop uranium exploration the Grand Canyon. The Kaibab National Forest granted British firm Vane Minerals approval to conduct exploratory uranium drilling on national forest lands along the park’s southern boundary with no public hearing and no environmental review. It was the first of five such projects slated for the area.
Interior Invites Public Input on Future Hardrock Mineral Development (Department of Interior)
Federal Plan Announced to Protect Grand Canyon From Uranium Mining (Grand Canyon National Trust)
Grand Canyon Mining Ban in the Works (by Doug Ramsey, Public News Service)
BLM Authorizes Grand Canyon Uranium Exploration (by Eric Bontrager, Greenwire/New York Times)
Lawsuit Seeks to Block Uranium Mining at Grand Canyon (Environment News Service)
Fire Management Policy
The USDA Forest Service fire management policy has been a source of great debate in recent years. While one of the agency’s earliest missions was to protect forests from fire, there has been recent criticism about the agency’s effectiveness at managing fires and reducing the ecological consequences of forest fires. As a result of USFS policies, wildfires have gone from being high frequency, low-intensity events, which provide sustainability for certain ecosystems, to low-frequency, high-intensity events that make suppression of them futile, writes University of Maryland Professor Robert Nelson in his book A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service.
Due to the prolonged absence of fire and the reduction in timber harvests, the abundance of dead and dying trees provide a high fuel load and conditions for high-intensity fires that can cause enormous damage to soils, watersheds, fisheries, and other ecosystem components, Nelson argues. Many environmental groups that view natural fires as an integral part of ecosystem management have also criticized fire suppression efforts, claiming that it lacks scientific basis. Meanwhile, firefighters and residents who live on forestland lobby heavily for fire suppression policies.
A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the US Forest Service (by Robert H. Nelson, Independent Review)
Wildland Fires: A Historical Perspective (U.S. Fire Administration, Topical Fire Research Series) (pdf)
Forest Roads or Forest Fires? (by C.J. Buck, U.S. Forest Service, 1936) (pdf)
Controversy on Releasing Wilderness Areas from Protection
Republican lawmakers set out in 2011 to approve the release of large tracts of public lands from government protection.
H.R. 1581 called for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the USDA Forest Service to relinquish control over certain wilderness study areas as well as lands in National Forests where road development is prohibited.
The bill potentially affected six million acres of BLM wilderness study areas and as much as 36 million acres of roadless areas in the National Forest System.
Any BLM lands not designated as wilderness or under consideration for wilderness designation would have been eligible for release, under the legislation. Similarly, the Forest Service would have been compelled to let go of roadless areas not deemed wilderness or not recommended for such designation.
The Obama administration opposed the bill, saying it would undermine the ability of both agencies to carry out resource conservation.
Bill to Release Wilderness Study Areas Creates Controversy (Wildlife Management Institute)
Federally Funded School Lunches Cause Controversy
The USDA under President Barack Obama stirred controversy in December 2010 when it sought to change the nutrition guidelines for federally funded school lunch programs.
Under new regulations developed by the USDA, the calorie intake of school lunches for primary students would be reduced to 550-650 for each student, 600-700 for middle school, and 750-850 for high school students.
The change also called for using more multigrain breads instead of white bread and making sure vegetable servings were really made up of vegetables. Existing guidelines allowed for an eighth of a cup of tomato paste to equal one serving of vegetables, which allowed school lunches to serve pizza to meet its vegetable requirement. The changes sought to eliminate this loophole over the opposition of tomato farmers.
The USDA also wanted to cut back on salt, potatoes, and saturated fats in school lunches, while boosting the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.
'Pizza vegetable' controversy is hot potato (by Jill U. Adams, Los Angeles Times)
Health News: Pizza-Vegetable Debate In Congress; 200-Pound 8-Year-Old Heads To Foster Care; Oregon Obesity Check-Up (by Nick Budnick, The Oregonian)
Government to Pay Black Farmers for History of Discrimination
The National Black Farmers Association scored a major victory in December 2010, when the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote approved a $1.5 billion measure to fund payments to black farmers who alleged Department of Agriculture discrimination. The case was settled out of court 11 years ago, when the department found that black farmers had to wait three times longer for loans and subsidies. They were losing their land because they couldn’t get loans. A federal judge determined that qualifying farmers could receive $50,000 each from the settlement. Although a settlement was reached, resources never were allocated to pay farmers’ claims. In October 2011, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled in favor of a $1.25 billion settlement, allowing up to 68,000 black farmers to apply for either a $50,000 or $250,000 payment, depending on the documentation of damages.
Justice Still Delayed for Black Farmers (by Cynthia Gordy, The Root)
Boyd on Brink of $1.5 billion Settlement to Black Farmers (by SoVaNow.com)
Bachmann Attacks Pigford Agreement (by Bryan Horwath, Stillwater Gazette)
Judge approves historic settlement for black farmers (by Paul Courson, CNN)
Sherry Sherrod Firing Controversy
On July 19, 2010, Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development days after video excerpts were posted online by Andrew Breitbart, blogger and media commentator, which purported to show her making racist remarks to a gathering of the NAACP Freedom Fund. The story was quickly picked up by the national media and evoked widespread condemnation of her inside and out of government, including a tweet from NAACP President Benjamin Jealous that he was “appalled.”
However, within days it was established that Sherrod’s videotaped comments had been edited and taken out of context. Sherrod, who is black, was making precisely the opposite point with an uplifting story of how she helped a white family avoid loss of their farm through foreclosure in 1986 while employed at a private advocacy firm for African-American farmers. Most of the media quickly reversed course, President Barack Obama personally called Sherrod to express his “regret” about the controversy and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered her a new job, which she declined.
Sherrod Turns Down Offer to Make Fresh Start at USDA (by Krissan Thompson, Washington Post)
Fired USDA Official Receives Apologies from White House, Vilsack (by Karen Tumulty and Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post)
Large sums of money are given annually through price supports for certain crops or farmers. These subsidies artificially keep American produce prices low on foreign markets, harming struggling foreign farmers, critics argue. The top 10% of the recipients collected 74% of all subsidy payments, with an average of nearly $30,000 per year from 1995-2009. Meanwhile, the bottom 80% collected an average of $570 per year in that same time period, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Betting the Family Farm (by Sam Hurst, Gourmet)
EWG Farm Subsidy Database (Environmental Working Group)
Global Warming Poses Threat to U.S. Farming
While a number of pundits still deny global warming science, in May 2008, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program issued a report on the threats of climate change to agriculture and other key natural resources, which was authored by 38 researchers from universities, national laboratories, non-governmental organizations, and federal service. The USDA was the lead agency for the report and is using the findings to develop a new strategic plan for climate change research. The report found that no matter the region, weather and climate factors directly impact the health of American crops and livestock, which were valued at $200 billion in 2002. The report also concluded that climate change-induced shifts in plant species are already under way in rangelands. Shifts in plant productivity and type will likely also have significant impact on livestock operations. Higher temperatures will also likely reduce livestock production during the summer season, but these losses will likely be partially offset by warmer temperatures during the winter season. Increased CO2 and temperatures will also more rapidly progress the lifecycle grain and oilseed crops, but as temperature rises, these crops will increasingly begin to experience failure. Climate change will also likely lead to a northern migration of weeds, the report found. Disease pressure on crops and domestic animals will also likely increase with earlier springs and warmer winters, which will allow for the proliferation and higher survival rates of pathogens and parasites.
The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources, and Biodiversity in the United States (by Peter Backlund, Anthony Janetos, and David Schimel, U.S. Climate Change Science Program)
Hallmark/Westland Meat Recall
In early 2008, megalith meat packer Hallmark/Westland was criticized for abusing cows in its plant. The company was exposed by an undercover investigator with the Humane Society, who was employed by Hallmark/Westland. The investigator shot secret video showing workers prodding “downed” cattle with electric rods, ramming them with a forklift, and shooting high-powered water streams up their noses in an attempt to get them to stand for slaughter. Downed cattle are prohibited from the food supply as the risks of infection, contamination, and disease are heightened with lame animals. This particular incident was troubling for the FNS, as much of the meat from Hallmark/Westland is slated for its programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Westland is the second largest supplier of beef for the National School Lunch Program and was even named “supplier of the year” by the Agriculture Department in 2004-2005. Following the story, these products were placed on hold, and 143 million pounds of beef was recalled—the largest beef recall in U.S. history. The recall included beef products dating back to February of 2006. Sen. Tom Harkin criticized USDA for an inadequate job of inspections.
Video of Workers Abusing Cows Raises Food Safety Questions (by Kathy Benz, CNN)
Rural Development Division Funds Urban Areas
With more than 40 programs under its aegis and growing, the Rural Development division of the USDA is a quiet but controversial presence, distributing billions of dollars in development aid and loans/loan guarantees. Many observers note what can seem like arbitrary administration of these funds to areas designated by a vague policy definition of “rurality.” The majority of recipient communities are, in fact, not at all rural—but suburban, retirement- or resort-economy-based, or positively metropolitan. USDA officials maintain that they follow regulations as directed by the department and Congress, but those regulations are increasingly confusing or opaque. Rural America covers 75% of the nation’s landmass, and can no longer be predominantly defined (culturally, demographically, or economically) by the agriculture industry. But inconsistent definitions of “rural” lend well to subjective—and ultimately, strategic interpretations. According to an article published in The Washington Post in April 2007, the USDA has doled out in excess of $70 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees through its Rural Development program since 2001. The Post investigation found that more than half of that money has gone to “metropolitan regions or communities within easy commuting distance of a midsize city, including beach resorts and suburban developments.” Metropolitan areas with populations of 50,000 or more received $30.3 billion—more than triple the amount given to poor or shrinking rural counties (which are the ostensible beneficiaries of Rural Development), which received a total of $8.6 billion for the same period. (Even retirement or recreational communities got $8.8 billion.) Requirements for determining eligibility for RD assistance tend to be quite variable and even subjective, depending on the program itself and leaving room for lawmakers to weigh in. For some programs, assistance is limited to towns with populations below 2,500, but for others numbers can reach up to 50,000, and some census-based decisions can divide eligible communities by street or block.
Rural Aid Goes to Urban Areas: USDA Development Program Helps Suburbs, Resort Cities (by Gilbert M. Gaul and Sarah Cohen, Washington Post)
Measuring Rurality (USDA)
Inspector General’s Report on Packing and Stockyard Corruption
In January 2006 the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report evaluating mismanagement by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), particularly in the Packers & Stockyards Program (P&SP), which has been widely criticized as inefficient in its duties in enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act and anti-competitive laws. The report was in response to concerns raised by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 2005 on possible inflation of actual investigations conducted by the competition division in annual GIPSA reports to suggest a higher rate of enforcement activity. The report confirmed accusations that top officials had intentionally blocked investigations by refusing to provide clearance for employees to conduct investigations and inflating the number of investigations to give the misleading appearance that the agency was responding to pressures to clamp down on anti-competitive practices and market concentration.
The report identified three areas of material weaknesses: defining and tracking investigations, planning and conducting competition and complex investigations, and making agency policy. Additionally, it said the agency had not taken sufficient actions to strengthen operations in response to a finding previously reported by the Office of Inspector General in 1997 and the Government Accountability Organization (GAO) in 2000. In 1997 the USDA report on GIPSA monitoring revealed that the agency had inadequate resources for proper monitoring, while the following year, they reported that the GIPSA had implemented major reorganization of P&SP to improve handling of concerns over anti-competitive activity. The 2000 GAO report confirmed that GIPSA had completed major restructuring and hired staff. The main issues of concern were that the GIPSA investigations were led by economists without the formal involvement of attorneys from the Office of General Counsel; and that the investigations process was designed for traditional trade practice and not suited to the more complex anti-competitive practices currently at issue. In response, the bipartisan U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee found that the GIPSA had failed to enforce competition laws over the past decade, citing a “long history of incompetence” in its investigations, and accused auditors of ignoring recommendations for improvement in oversight. Senator Harkin introduced legislation to reorganize the USDA, with a more aggressive approach to policing anti-competitive activity and “bad actors in livestock and poultry markets,” and charging that, “[f]or over five years, the Dept essentially took no action against unfair market practices and high-level USDA officials let it happen…”
In the second term of the George W. Bush administration, budget cutbacks resulted in the closing of FSA offices across the United States. In September 2005 the agency proposed the closures of 30% of its offices and planned to eventually eliminate 713 of the 2,351 offices nationwide, according to a summary the department provided to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Many farmers protested these cuts, as local FSA offices have been a crucial connection between farmers and the department since the 1930s.
Farm Service Agency Transforming (by Layton Ehmke, Homer Tribune)
Plan: 10, not 12 FSA offices likely to close (by Art Hovey, Lincoln Journal Star)
ARS Among Federal Agencies Caught Skimming from Pork Projects
In 2005, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) launched an investigation after learning that the Department of Agriculture was skimming funds off of congressional earmarks. Nelson’s investigation found numerous offices guilty of “earmark skimming.” In many cases federal agencies were found to be taking cuts from earmarked funds for years, some for unrelated purposes as varied as staff salaries and postage stamps. Nelson asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate, which resulted in a finding that the federal government had no umbrella legal authority that allowed agencies to take a cut of each earmark and no overall standard for how much agencies should take. The amount taken from earmarks varied within an agency. The Agricultural Research Service, for example, took 10% of earmarks, while the Extension Service at the Agriculture Department took 4%.
Not All Earmarks Are Paid in Full, and a Senator Wants to Know Why (by Ron Nixon, New York Times)
Should the Food Stamp Program Be Dismantled?
The Food and Nutrition Service finds itself at the center of ideological battles that question the role of the state in dealing with poverty and welfare, as well as business and subsidies. It is a complex debate that questions the causes and persistence of poverty. Compounding these questions are disagreements over how hunger and poverty are defined and quantified. Often, the debate falls along party lines.
Pro: Keep the Food Stamp Program
Liberals focus on societal and systemic causes for poverty, such as disproportionate advantages and opportunities given to the middle class and wealthy. Many on the left see poverty as a societal creation and therefore a responsibility of government. Welfare programs are necessary to the marriage of capitalism and democracy, and welfare programs correct for market failures and redistribute wealth, allowing all members of democracy to be engaged in political and economic processes, many liberals argue.
The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society (by Michael Tanner, Independent Institute)
Congressional Food Stamp Challenge: U.S. Members of Congress Live on a Food Stamp Budget (Congressional Food Stamp Challenge)
Food Stamp Program: Program Integrity and Participation Challenges (Government Accountability Office) (pdf)
Con: End the Food Stamp Program
Conservative opinions of poverty tend to reflect ideals of choice and personal responsibility. This view sees the poor as architects of their condition. To the Right, welfare programs reward laziness and encourage dependence. The Heritage Foundation reports that the majority of households receiving food stamps are headed by young able-bodied adults, 70% of whom do not work. The report also found that the “typical” non-elderly recipient has received benefits for more than seven years. Welfare programs hurt both the poor and society because they engender dependence, discourage ambition, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty, the report found.
Food Stamp Program is Outdated (by Robert Rector, Heritage Foundation)
Is Agricultural Trade Working Under NAFTA?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) represented one of the most ambitious, and controversial, trade reforms embarked upon by the United States during the late 20th century. Signed on January 1, 1994, and fully implemented on January 1, 2008, NAFTA removed most barriers to trade and investment among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The agreement did away with all non-tariff barriers to agriculture, either immediately or phased out over periods of five to 15 years. The treaty also protected intellectual property rights and removed investment barriers. Furthermore, the parties to NAFTA formed the largest trading bloc in the world in terms of the members combined gross domestic product.
NAFTA also produced no shortage of opinions, both pro and con, about its merits. Supporters and opponents have been especially vocal in the U.S. and Mexico, trading barbs and accusations about the agreement and what it will ultimately mean for everyone affected by it.
Pro: The View from Mexico
Within Mexico the implementation of NAFTA pitted farmers against the government. President Felipe Calderon defended the removal of protections for corn, beans, milk and sugar, while admitting the treaty was far from perfect for his country.
Nevertheless, Calderon argued increased trade integration with the U.S. and Canada was the only way to bolster the economy. “The free trade agreement, negotiated almost 15 years ago, has its pros and cons, but overall it has benefited the country,” he said in a speech, according to Reuters.
The president added that his country enjoyed “more, and better-paid, jobs than in 1994 in the sectors linked to the treaty.” The other NAFTA parties were now importing almost five times as many Mexican farm products than 12 years earlier, he claimed.
Mexican President Defends NAFTA Despite Protests (by Mica Rosenberg, Reuters)
NAFTA & Globalization is Killing Mexico’s Farmers (by Brendan M. Case, Dallas Morning News)
Con: Critiques of NAFTA
Within the United States, NAFTA has had both its promoters and opponents. Some of the most vocal advocates for the treaty have been large corporations, which promised that the removal of trade barriers would create hundreds of thousands of new high-wage jobs, raise living standards in all three countries, improve environmental conditions and transform Mexico into a vibrant developed nation.
Many different American groups have rejected the promised benefits of NAFTA. Human rights organizations, for one, have argued the treaty’s provisions ignored important labor rights obligations. One group, Human Rights Watch, called for the establishment of an independent oversight agency to fix violations of workers’ rights.
Other opponents included consumer advocates, such as Public Citizen, which argued NAFTA placed limits on food safety and inspections. The group also complained the agreement would allow new patent rules to result in higher prices for medicine, as well as constrain local governments’ ability to zone against sprawl and toxic industries.
Even in Mexico, farmers disagreed with President Felipe Calderon, saying they feared the removal of barriers would result in a flood of cheap U.S. agricultural goods. The result would be the loss of more farm jobs, on top of the two million already impacted by the treaty. The farmers promised to continue their public protests of NAFTA until the government provided more support to the agricultural sector.
Mexican farmers protest NAFTA (by Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times)
NAFTA Labor Accord Ineffective: Future Trade Pacts Must Avoid Pitfalls (Human Rights Watch)
Revisiting NAFTA: Still Not Working for North America’s Workers (by Robert E. Scott, Carlos Salas, Bruce Campbell and introduction by Jeff Faux, Economic Policy Institute) (pdf)
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Public Citizen)
The Broken Promise of NAFTA (by Joseph E. Stiglitz, New York Times)
Mexico: NAFTA and Migration (Migration News)
Vilsack Endorses Dairy Reforms
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called for policy reforms in 2011 to avoid another collapse of milk prices that put many dairy farmers out of business two years earlier. At that time, plummeting prices wreaked havoc for farmers, especially those in Wisconsin, which lost more than 2,500 dairy producers.
Some members of Congress began looking at changes to the government’s safety net for dairy farmers, with the goal of making the industry more profitable and less reliant on federal subsidies.
Without specifically endorsing any plans, Vilsack said he welcomed changes from Congress, noting that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had limited authority in imposing major changes in policy. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) warned that if Congress doesn’t pass a new Farm Bill that includes reforms, the country would have $38 per hundredweight milk as of January 1, 2013, when a law that dates back to the 1940s will again take effect. That could mean $6 for a gallon of milk.
No Farm Bill Could Mean $38 Milk after Jan. 1 ( by Tom Quaife, DairyHerd Network)
Vilsack Says Dairy Programs Need Quick Reform (by Bob Hoff, AgInfo.net)
Dairy Reform Necessary, U.S. Ag Chief Says (by Rick Barrett, Journal Sentinel)
USDA Proposal to Reform Biofuel Loan Guarantees
Federal officials proposed revamping the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan guarantee program so advanced biofuels projects could receive more assistance.
The plan for the Biorefinery Assistance Program, first proposed in Section 9003 in the 2008 Farm Bill, was intended to support the development and construction of new biorefineries and the remodel of existing facilities using eligible technologies beginning after 2011. Proposed changes included allowing loan guarantees to apply to the bond market, something they currently could not do. Officials said the change was necessary due to the difficulty of acquiring financing to support loan guarantees through commercial banks.
Another proposed change called for the removal of “rural” from regulation language so that projects located in areas with populations greater than 50,000 could qualify for loan guarantees.
The USDA also wanted to allow foreign entrepreneurs to own domestic biofuel refineries, which was not permitted under existing regulations.
In 2012, the USDA announced a loan guarantee to Chemtex International, Inc., to construct the first cellulosic ethanol refinery in the mid-Atlantic region. The North Carolina project received federal support because, Secretary Tom Vilsack said, it would help reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, increase farm income since the biofuels would come from grasses and other agricultural products, and create jobs in the region. In October 2012, ZeaChem Inc., with $25 million from the USDA, completed construction of a cellulosic ethanol refinery in Boardman, Oregon. Among its other additional investors were companies from Japan and Australia.
USDA Proposes Reform To Loan Guarantees for Advanced Biofuels (by Kris Bevill, Ethanol Producer Magazine)
USDA Guarantees Loan to Support Development of Advanced Biofuels Production from Energy Grasses (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Obama Proposes Housing Reorganization
In President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address, he called for a major reorganization of the federal government, citing redundancies in the areas of housing policy and exports. “There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy…” Obama said. In late January, Obama appointed Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s chief performance officer, to head what has been called the biggest reorganization of the government in more than a half century. In addition to the Rural Housing Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and offices in the departments of Defense, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs all oversee and administer housing policy.
Obama Moves Forward with Government Reorganization (by David Jackson, USA Today)
How Would You Reorganize the Federal Government? (by Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post)
State of the Union 2011: Obama Calls for Reorganization of Federal Agencies (by Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post)
USDA “Biobased” Labels Initiative
The USDA proposed in 2011 new labeling standards for “biobased” (what the USDA calls BioPreferred) products, which sparked complaints from some businesses.
The purpose of the new rule was to identify biobased products composed of a minimum amount of renewable plant or animal materials. The USDA definition of biobased refers to a product that is in whole or in “significant part,” made of biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and marine materials) or forestry materials. The minimum amount was 25%.
USDA officials said the labeling initiative would serve to more clearly identify biobased products and promote their sale.
But some critics pointed out that the proposal would exclude “mature market” products, such as paper plates, from receiving labels.
BioPreferred (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Federal ‘Biobased’ Label Plan Stirs Debate (by Heather Clancy, Smart Planet)
Ed Schafer, January 28, 2008-January 21, 2009
Michael O. Johanns, January 21, 2005 - September 20, 2007
Ann M. Veneman, January 20, 2001 - January 20, 2005
Daniel R. Glickman, March 30, 1995 - January 19, 2001
Alphonso Michael "Mike" Espy, January 22, 1993 - December 31, 1994
Edward R. Madigan, March 8, 1991 - January 20, 1993
Clayton K. Yeutter, February 16, 1989 - March 1, 1991
Richard E. Lyng, March 7, 1986 - January 21, 1989
John R. Block, January 23, 1981 - February 14, 1986
Robert S. Bergland, January 23, 1977 - January 20, 1981
John A. Knebel, November 4, 1976 - January 20, 1977
Earl L. Butz, December 2, 1971 - October 4, 1976
Clifford M. Hardin, January 21, 1969 - November 17, 1971
Orville L. Freeman, January 21, 1961 - January 20, 1969
Ezra Taft Benson, January 21, 1953 - January 20, 1961
Charles F. Brannan, June 2, 1948 - January 20, 1953
Clinton P. Anderson, June 30, 1945 - May 10, 1948
Claude R. Wickard, September 5, 1940 - June 29, 1945
Henry A. Wallace, March 4, 1933 - September 4, 1940
Arthur M. Hyde, March 6, 1929 - March 4, 1933
William M. Jardine, March 5, 1925 - March 4, 1929
Howard M. Gore, November 22, 1924 - March 4, 1925
Henry C. Wallace, March 5, 1921 - October 25, 1924
Edwin T. Meredith, February 2, 1920 - March 4, 1921
David F. Houston, March 6, 1913 - February 2, 1920
James Wilson, March 6, 1897 - March 5, 1913
J. Sterling Morton, March 7, 1893 - March 5, 1897
Jeremiah M. Rusk, March 6, 1889 - March 6, 1893
Norman Jay Coleman, February 15, 1889 - March 6, 1889