Report Lacks Historical Marrow

Reading USDA Inc.: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the US Department of Agriculture, by Philip Mattera, one is reminded of author Studs Terkel's axiom "we can't know where we are going if we don't know where we've been."

The 40-page paper, conceived by the Organization For Competitive Markets, commissioned by a working group of the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative and edited by the director of the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, sadly ignores that axiom and thus operates in that historical vacuum that leads the reader to believe that USDA's selling out family farmers is simply a recent phenomenon.

It is more than ironic that the words of St. Paul -- "The husbandman that laboreth must be the first partaker of the fruits" -- should be the very words that appear today over the portico of the US Department of Agriculture headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Ironic, because a close examination of that department's actions throughout its history reveals a bloated bureaucracy whose actions have often contributed to the demise of that very same "husbandman" that it so proudly professes to protect. The reality, however, is that it has been devising and implementing various policies and programs which have had the net effect of simply enriching the coffers of corporate agribusiness.

From its inception the USDA has for a variety of philosophical and structural reasons been unable to reconcile its role as a client-oriented agency of the federal government and as a major force in corporate agribusiness.

With its founding in 1862 the department was designed to be exclusively concerned with farmer affairs. Its comprehensive charter mandated that it acquire and diffuse among its farm constituents useful information on subjects connected with agriculture "in the most general and comprehensive sense of the word."

The growth of the department, however, soon became enormous as one function spilled over into another, from fact and plant gathering to research, to extension, to education, to regulation, to credit, to subsidies for not producing, to storage, to conservation, to insurance, to public distribution of surpluses at home and abroad, to rural development.

It is important to remember in evaluating the USDA that we are not talking about one big, vast monolithic executive department. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of small, entrenched departments that frequently flaunt and defy organizational analysis spread throughout its ten and one-half miles of corridors in its two main buildings on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and in the hundreds of its offices throughout the US and abroad.

As one USDA employee once explained to me, "within the USDA empire there are numerous kingdoms and within those many kingdoms are dozens of fiefdoms and within those fiefdoms are well-entrenched people who know the routes, and the routes around the routes."

To understand the historical context from which the present day USDA has emerged is therefore mandatory if one is to set about reforming it, for by its every nature and given its history, it cannot be reformed from within.

Likewise, to center attention on just five areas -- BSE or Mad Cow, Captive Supply in Meatpacking Inspection Policies, Biotech Foods and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations -- as case studies of USDA's dereliction of duty as does USDA Inc. is both myopic and exhibiting a fondness for not seeing the forest for the trees.

No one can argue that economic concentration and the consequences of such concentration have had a profound influence on the cattle industry and meatpacking business, but in seeking to explain the evolution of efforts to curb such concentration USDA Inc. not only fails to properly and thoroughly explain the origins of those efforts, but overlooks their long-term consequences.

In reacting to the victories of the agrarian populists of the late 19th century, the corporate community saw its primary and immediate need was to co-opt the fledgling populist movement, and thus it acceded to the birth to the Progressive Era.

Rather than accept the notion that the so-called regulatory reforms of the Progressive Era were a response to demands by big business that the federal government rationalize ruinous competition, and frame the question in terms of good trusts and bad trusts and thus come up with legislation that would regulate the bad trusts, we see a total lack of recognition that trusts in and of themselves were bad for both farmers and consumers.

In the years since the Progressive Era the courts and a politically sensitive Department of Justice along with the corporate friendly policies of the USDA have managed to successfully create corporate concentrations beyond anything imagined by those who initiated our first anti-trust laws. Driving the final nail in the coffin was the passage of the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democrat president.

But, if one wants to truly show how historically remiss the USDA has been in serving its primary constituency then a thorough examination of the rampant discrimination against minority farmers; washing its hands of any responsibility for the plight of the men, women and children who harvest and process our food, and its dubious role in underwriting corporate research with taxpayer dollars through the Land Grant College and Extension Service -- as laid out in detail in the 1971 Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times study by the Agribusiness Accountability Project -- is indispensable. None of these issues are dealt with in a substantive way in USDA Inc.

It is misleading, as USDA Inc. illustrates, to suggest that USDA's "revolving door" and its influence on "USDA decision making over the past decade" is any way out of character for the agency or of recent origin.

One finds nothing in USDA Inc. concerning this important USDA history, thus not only undercutting its own goal of demonstrating how poorly the USDA serves and promotes family farm agriculture interests while at the same time bestowing its largesse on its corporate paymasters, but also passing up a prime opportunity of informing public opinion as to the seriousness of this chronic problem of corporate/government incest.

In the Center of Concern's Peter Driscoll's "Next Steps: Toward a Shareholder Revolt at USDA Inc." essay at the conclusion of USDA Inc., he acknowledges:

"And as long as the food industry monopolizes the debate, there is little prospect of meaningful reform in farm and agricultural trade policy, or movement toward a more sustainable food system. But there is still time for the majority shareholders in this enterprise -- taxpayers, consumers, farmers and proponents of a fair, safe and sustainable food system -- to replace the de facto board of industry-friendly directors with representatives from all appropriate constituencies. It's time for a shareholder revolt at USDA Inc."

Driscoll's challenge is well taken, despite the fact that much information concerning the inner workings of the USDA throughout its history is already available and should have been a part of this USDA Inc. report.

It is that type of comprehensive review that is long overdue and should not simply be confronted piecemeal and narrowly confined as it is in USDA Inc. or should it be sacrificed in the name of capitalizing on a fickle public's here today, gone tomorrow food concerns.

See the report at

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email; web site

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