Two Views of What USDA Should be

The Lempert Report
December 09, 2020

Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and Mark Bittman, cookbook author extraordinare and former NY Times columnist co-wrote an engaging and thoughtful column in the NY Times about the USDA – what is it – and what it could be.

They start off by saying that it’s time the secretary of agriculture leverages the department’s impact for more than the benefit of agribusiness. And that with just one cabinet appointment, Secretary of Agriculture, President-elect Joe Biden could tackle economic inequality, the rural/urban divide, climate change, the growing mistrust of science, systemic racism and even the coronavirus.

What the USDA is, is that two-thirds of the U.S.D.A.’s $146 billion annual budget goes to programs addressing nutrition and food insecurity, not to agriculture or forestry, which also falls under the department’s domain.

And, they continue to write, the U.S.D.A. invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year in financial and technical assistance for rural communities to improve infrastructure that most urban residents take for granted — electrification, broadband access, water and waste disposal, housing, health care and public safety. Yet broad sections of the rural population feel — and indeed have been — left behind.

Bittman and Salvador write that the U.S.D.A. supports a system that, overall, prioritizes trade and profit at the expense of most farmers, the environment and everyday Americans — instead of encouraging a food system that provides a thriving livelihood for farmers and farmworkers, environmental protection and healthy food for all. At best, 7 percent of farmers are able to make a living from farming; food chain workers earn poverty wages; large-scale agriculture poisons land, water and air and contributes mightily to climate change; and good food is available only to the relatively wealthy.

What USDA could be, the authors say, with new enlightened leadership the new secretary could steer the department toward becoming what President Lincoln envisioned when he established it — “the people’s department,” with responsibility to everyone in the nation. When the U.S.D.A. was founded more than 158 years ago, about half of all Americans lived on farms; today just 0.6 percent of the population are farmers, and we devote only 20% of agricultural land to produce food we eat and almost all farmers must supplement their income with off-farm jobs. The secretary of agriculture they say, should lead the fight against corporations that have created a toxic food environment and support groups building healthful alternatives. The secretary should champion unity among farmers, rural people and urban advocates for racial and economic justice against the common enemy of consolidation and concentration of wealth. And the secretary should use the department’s vaunted research and extension capacity to support a food system that can rebuild rural economies, regenerate ecological capital, mitigate climate change and provide nourishing food for all.

They also call for one more change: a name change that reflects the country’s needs: a Department of Food and Well Being.