Meatless Mondays can be patriotic, too
Recently, the Texas commissioner of agriculture reacted with outrage to the fact that employees of the United States Department of Agriculture would dare suggest, in an internal newsletter on “greening” the Washington headquarters, that co-workers might consider practicing “Meatless Mondays” to reduce the environmental impact of their diet. “Last I checked,” blogged Commissioner Todd Staples, “USDA had a very specific duty to promote and champion American agriculture. Imagine Ford or Chevy discouraging the purchase of their pickup trucks. Anyone else see the absurdity? How about the betrayal?”
Staples went on to call the suggestion to forgo meat once in a while “treasonous.” L’état, c’est boeuf. But there’s a bigger question: Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purpose, indeed, simply to promote the consumption of American commodities in the same way Ford tries to sell F-150s? Or is it instead to help agriculture work for the American public at large?
Staples’s response to Meatless Mondays captures a pervasive way of thinking in the world of modern American agriculture. Some of the soft spots in Staples’s argument are immediately obvious. For one thing, agriculture includes fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy, too. “We’re not saying ‘don’t eat,'” counters Bob Martin, a food policy expert at Johns Hopkins and an adviser to the Meatless Mondays campaign. “So we’re not anti-agriculture.”
As a branch of the United States government, the USDA was created in the mid-1800s to collect and distribute the best farming knowledge. Farmers were, as President Abraham Lincoln phrased it, “the most numerous class” in a young, largely agrarian nation. But the 16th president saw that it was a class that would bring the country better benefit if equipped with the best scientific and technological knowledge. In 1862, Congress passed a bill establishing a Department of Agriculture. Its mission was “to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word.” That knowledge-centric founding vision is reflected in the USDA’s stated mission today: “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.”
In the interim, though, there’s inarguably been a shift toward production for the sake of production. “After World War Two was when it really started to change,” says Johns Hopkins’s Martin, “and it became a chest-thumping, ‘best agricultural system in the world,’ ‘let’s produce more and export it – don’t worry about it’ sort of thing.” One important era: the reign of Earl Butz, who served as agriculture secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford until he was drummed out of the latter’s cabinet in 1976 over an especially crude racist joke. High food prices had become a political issue for Nixon, and in part to help drive them down Butz encouraged American farmers to plant “from fencerow to fencerow.” In the years that followed, laws were passed creating industrywide promotional programs on agricultural commodities overseen by USDA and funded by producer fees, such as the Beef Board, which was paid for by dollar-per-head fees and brought us “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” (Similarly, there’s “Pork. The Other White Meat” and “The Incredible, Edible Egg.”) “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers. And today, big industrial livestock producers, scaled-up corporate farms and powerful industry groups have become the image of the American agricultural system.
In our early years, we were a hungry nation. It made sense to ramp up both production and consumption. But now we’re, well, overfed. “There was a time when the nation producing more food wasn’t contrary to its nutritional needs,” says Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “Undernutrition was a problem. Obesity wasn’t. But the situation has changed.”
And indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has long tried to figure out how to help Americans be better eaters. Since the 1980s, the USDA has issued dietary guidelines – think back to that food pyramid. (Meatless Mondays advocates point out that eating something other than meat for a day fits quite comfortably with what the USDA says about how we should be eating.) The department also administers the food stamp program, which shapes the way 46 million Americans eat.
But those two goals of promoting what American big agriculture produces and disseminating what science says about how Americans should eat “not infrequently come into conflict,” says Yale’s Brownell. “The Meatless Monday thing would be pretty uncontroversial among nutritional experts, so the fact that industry was able to turn it around” – Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded by agreeing that the posting was a mistake that would be erased – “shows which of these competing missions usually wins.”
Usually. But from the perspective of large-scale agricultural interests, lately it hasn’t been enough. There’s no avoiding the political here; “food politics” in the United States is very much about both food and politics. And frankly, big producers are feeling a little unloved in Washington.
Over at the USDA, Vilsack is seen as having given them the cold shoulder during his tenure. Over at the White House, you’ve got Michelle Obama talking about going organic. And things are little better in Congress. The House of Representatives is wrangling over the Farm Bill, as Congress does every five years, and consensus is hard to find. With hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, Republican leaders seem to be less worried about backing their colleagues from farm districts than they were about getting on the wrong side of Tea Party members and others who aren’t eager to sign off on such federal government spending. Blue Dog Democrats, traditionally backers of agricultural spending, have seen their ranks severely reduced in recent years. And big agricultural producers are seeing their political power dwindle at a time that much of the U.S. is suffering through a rather epic drought.
Big producers and their industry groups are feeling “unmoored,” says Neil Conklin, president of Farm Foundation and a veteran of the USDA, “and when people get unmoored they get touchier.” In that environment, any suggestion that the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks it’s fine if some of your three squares aren’t meat-based is enough to cause a conflagration.
Back to that drought. Despite Commissioner Staples’s argument that it’s proof that now is not the time for the USDA to hype vegetables, the drought is also a chance for the USDA to once again use science to improve the state of agriculture. The best research we know shows that producing meat is highly water- (not to mention fossil fuel-) intensive. “Resource use is something we should be talking about,” says Martin of Johns Hopkins. “This is the perfect time to talk about how we’re going to raise our food.”
At its core, the United States Department of Agriculture’s mission has always been to sustain the American way of life through food. Vegetables and fruits are food, too. Yes, tofu teriyaki is perfectly good food, too; not for nothing do American farms lead the world in the production of soybeans. For that matter, beef, pork and chicken produced on small, environmentally friendly farms and distributed to consumers through local networks are very much food, too. The outrage of Commissioner Staples and others aside, asking how the USDA could use the best knowledge out there to create a sustainable vision for a healthy, well-fed 21st century U.S. wouldn’t be veering off course or an abrogation of its mission. It would be – dare I say it – a perfectly organic next step.
PHOTO: A worker arranges slaughtered cattle in the freezing room in the Marfrig Group slaughter house in Promissao, 500 km northwest of Sao Paulo. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker