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.