U.S. Department of Agriculture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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 Forest ServiceForest Service was formed in 1905, and the Food and Drug AdministrationFood and Drug Administration (FDA) was established in 1906, shaping the USDA into a major regulatory agency. The FDA was later removed from the department, but some of its original regulatory duties remained with the USDA after the separation.Agriculture, U.S. Department of

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.

Farming and Rural Communities

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 Rural Electrification Act of 1935Rural Electrification Act provided electricity to many rural communities for the first time. The expansion of electric power lines to isolated farms was prohibitively expensive for local communities, so federal funding was necessary. The rural electrification program was a success, but technology continued to advance over time, and rural, agricultural communities continued to need assistance to adopt new technologies, including communications technologies such as telecommunications and, later, the Internet.

The Depression also highlighted the economic uncertainties of the farming community. The USDA is primarily responsible for administering the federal Farm subsidiessubsidy programs that provide a guaranteed income for farmers. The Farm Service AgencyFarm Service Agency (FSA) is the government’s safety net for American farmers. It provides loans for land, equipment, and crop purchases–mainly to new farmers, who lack the credit to receive bank loans. The FSA is also responsible for providing farmers with bridge loans, that is, interim funds they can use until they have harvested their crops. Bridge loans help prevent farmers from being forced to sell their commodities at a time when the market price is low. The USDA also makes loans to farmers when weather or other natural disasters destroy crops. Price supports are a larger program for agribusiness, as the federal government sets minimum prices for farm commodities.

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 Agriculture Marketing ServiceAgriculture Marketing Service (AMS) division advertises American agricultural products. The Marketing;agricultural productsAMS has engaged in high-profile, national campaigns, including the popular “Got Milk?” promotion since 1993. It is financed by mandatory fees charged to producers.

The USDA also works to increase food consumption by administering programs designed to provide food to the poor. The National School Lunch ProgramNational School Lunch Program is responsible for feeding tens of millions of school children daily. The program provides free or subsidized lunches while setting nutritional standards for each meal. The USDA was granted control of the program as part of its mission to dispense food surpluses. The department also runs the food stamp program, providing subsidized food for adults and families. The food stamp program also aids businesses, increasing their sales and revenue by making it possible for impoverished Americans to purchase more food than they otherwise could.

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.

(Library of Congress)

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.

Food Safety

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 Food Safety and Inspection ServicesFood Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) on the front lines of food safety. The FSIS guarantees that animals slaughtered for sale do not have diseases that might spread to people eating their Beef industrySafety, consumer;foodmeat. With a considerable amount of American meat being shipped overseas, the FSIS must prove to foreign governments that the slaughtering of animals by U.S. producers follows safety guidelines. If meat is considered unsafe, foreign countries may halt imports, much as Japan did after mad cow disease was discovered in some American beef.

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.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection ServiceAnimal and Plant Health Inspection Service was created to protect American agriculture from infestation from insects and other pests. The service has the authority to impose a quarantine on foreign or domestic food products that are found to contain pests. It also works with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Bureau to ensure that pests do not enter the country on the clothes or belongings of foreign visitors or Americans returning from abroad. The service also researches the best methods for fighting and defeating these pests and provides information to domestic producers on how to prevent infestations.

Conservation

Conserving the resources of Public lands;disposition ofpublic and private lands is another duty of the USDA. The best-known conservation agency within the USDA is the United States Forest Service, which produced the popular Smokey the Bear advertising campaign to prevent forest fires. The Forest Service also has a close relationship with business: As a protector of national forests, the service works with private companies that harvest trees in national forests. It regulates where and how trees will be cut to preserve the national forests while also allowing harvesting of lumber needed to build houses and to thin the forests.

Finally, the Natural Resources Conservation ServiceNatural Resources Conservation Service researches and dispenses information on the conservation of topsoil and water and the proper use of irrigation systems. It educates farmers and gardeners alike, teaching them to prevent fires, to use natural and artificial fertilizers effectively, and to rotate crops to maintain soil integrity.

Further Reading
  • 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.

Agribusiness

Agriculture

Bracero program

Dairy industry

Environmental movement

Farm Credit Administration

Farm subsidies

Food Stamp Plan

Meatpacking industry

World Trade Organization

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