Farm and Food File: The state of the nation’s farm and food union
The President of the United States should not be the only federal official required to offer the nation’s citizens an annual report on the “State of the Union.”
Every senior department executive—from Cabinet secretaries and the Pentagon chiefs to the Senate’s majority leader and the House speaker—should be required to examine their integral part of the world’s oldest living democracy to tell us, its owner-operators, what they are doing to keep it running while preparing to meet the challenges we are certain to encounter.
Too much work? Nonsense. Too time consuming? Baloney.
Every publicly held corporation (and most private ones, too) report to their shareholders quarterly. In fact, as a nation we believe business accountability to be so important that we have codified it into law and fund an extensive legal framework to enforce it.
More locally, nearly every tax-collecting body from the library board to the school board includes agenda time for public comments and questions at every meeting to ensure taxpayers and elected officials alike understand how the public’s trust and money are being used.
A good place to institute this annual, federal requirement would be what its founder, Abraham Lincoln, called “The People’s Department,” or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
While USDA does, in fact, publish an annual “Agency Financial Report,” last year’s 288-page document is a technocrat’s tome, a detailed account of mandated work—from crop insurance costs to county office software installation—and, surprisingly often, a long list of USDA’s failures to do its work on time, on budget, or even according to the law.
And it’s thick with bureaucratic flourishes that even the most pocket-protected policy geek would have difficulty interpreting. What do you think “Continued integration of the Continuous Centralized configuration management monitoring by leveraging CDM Phase 1 tools” means?
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a veterinarian by training and politician by choice, did sign the report, but his contribution is just the opening page-and-a-half “Message” wherein he says the department should be “fact-based and make data-driven, customer-focused decisions.”
But Perdue’s implementation of this vision has often missed his self-described mark. For example, one of his first administrative actions moved the freestanding Office of Undersecretary for Rural Development into his suit jacket pocket. Congress quickly rebuked the move and, in fact, used the 2018 Farm Bill to reinstate the office.
Also, Perdue continues to fuel a similar reorganization fight over moving USDA’s research branch, the Economic Research Service, and its scientific arm, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, out of Washington, D.C. to somewhere “closer to our customers.”
No one in either USDA or Congress asked for the move and, to date, Perdue has yet to offer a believable “fact-based, data-driven” cost-benefit analysis to show its need. Again, Congress strongly rebuked him on the idea and the new Democratically-controlled House Ag Committee has promised a deep dive—think deep six—into the idea.
In the meantime, the “customers” Perdue so often invokes when speaking about USDA’s “mission” still await action by the White House on when its ever-hardening, market-squeezing U.S. tariffs with China, the European Union, Canada, and Mexico will be removed as the U.S. farm income picture continues to darken.
And that’s just the current state of the American farm and food union.
Who at USDA or in Congress is even looking out just five or 10 years to measure how onrushing, sector-rattling factors like climate change, artificial intelligence, and regional trade deals that exclude U.S. farmers will affect those same “customers,” their families, and rural America?
Even more importantly, how will these—and other—unexamined but coming-like-a-freight train changes impact food availability, environmental sustainability, consumer choice, and food costs?
The best answer this climate change-denying, tariff-imposing, carbon-fueled Administration can offer is, “We don’t know.”
It’s also the worst answer for its “customers,” you, and me.