The Department of Agriculture was created to boost national agricultural production, but it later acquired responsibility for ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply as well.
Established in 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was created to improve productivity in American farming. The department helped farmers acquire and use technology and fertilizers and rotate crops effectively. It became a cabinet-level department in 1889. At the beginning of the twentieth century, its mission expanded, as two significant divisions were added to the department: The
The modern USDA regulates much of the food production and distribution process in the United States, setting guidelines for food safety and offering aid to farmers to increase production and lower prices. The department works closely with business, including small and corporate farms, wholesale food distributors, and retailers such as grocery stores. The USDA’s central duties are divided into three broad spheres of influence: farming and rural communities, food safety, and conservation.
The isolation and distances associated with rural communities have been a particular focus of the USDA since its creation. Early in its existence, the department began providing agricultural research and funding to educate farmers about new technologies and planting techniques. As technology became more important to successful farming, agricultural communities began to require conveniences more commonly found in urban areas.
During the Great Depression, the USDA began providing grants to expand and maintain the nation’s rural infrastructure. The 1935
The Depression also highlighted the economic uncertainties of the farming community. The USDA is primarily responsible for administering the federal
In addition to helping increase food production and providing income supports to farmers, the USDA has helped increase domestic and foreign consumption of American-grown food. The USDA’s
The USDA also works to increase food consumption by administering programs designed to provide food to the poor. The
The USDA has also sought to increase overseas demand for American agricultural commodities. It has conducted studies on alternative uses for food crops, including using them as fuel. The department educates farmers on how to increase their exports under international trade agreements and the regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Complementing the efforts of the USDA, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) negotiates and implements trade agreements. The USTR, through its effort with the WTO, can have a positive impact on agribusiness, opening new markets for American farmers by lowering foreign trade barriers. Trade agreements can also have a negative impact, however, as they may eliminate subsidies to American farmers, decreasing their income and increasing the cost of food.
An Iowa farmer uses a tractor bought with a loan from the Farm Security Administration (later the Farmers Home Administration) in 1939.
The USDA analyzes markets and the demand for certain agricultural products. The department makes short-term and long-term forecasts of the expected global and domestic production of farm commodities, helping farmers make plans for the next decade. The department also projects possible alternative uses for existing commodities, such as the conversion of corn into the biofuel ethanol.
The USDA has worked to protect American consumers from food-borne illnesses. During the 1990’s, the crisis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease) and its spread from animals to humans heightened public awareness of food-borne illnesses and the role of the USDA’s
The USDA has become more active in its inspections of foreign food producers as well. Although the department imposes strict regulations on American beef and poultry producers, it is often forced to depend on other governments to regulate their own industries. USDA inspectors, however, do examine foreign countries’ regulations and inspect food production plants and farms to ensure that food safety is maintained among exporters to the United States. They coordinate these efforts with foreign governments. The department thus works to ensure that the feeding and treatment of animals destined to become part of the U.S. food chain are properly regulated. In the absence of such regulations, the USDA can impose import bans on potentially unsafe food.
Conserving the resources of
Hurt, R. Douglas. Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. Historical look at American farming, including the various government programs used to improve agriculture and the financial condition of farmers. Morgan, Kevin, Terry Marsden, and Jonathan Murdoch. Worlds of Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Discusses the growing competition among world food producers and the difficulties in regulating worldwide food production. Murphy, Denis. People, Plants, and Genes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Describes the technological movement toward genetically enhanced foods and the regulatory environment for those foods. Pasour, E. J., and Randall Rucker. Plowshares and Pork Barrels. Washington, D.C.: Independent Institute, 2005. Critical analysis of the American government’s farm programs, ranging from agricultural subsidies to the food stamp program. Southgate, D. Douglas, Douglas Graham, and Luther Tweeten. The World Food Economy. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006. Introduction to the international food economy; explains how overseas producers have complicated the American food market and how American farmers have sought to compete with international producers.
Farm Credit Administration
Food Stamp Plan
World Trade Organization