People’s department’ switching to USDA Inc.


Somewhere along the line the USDA jumped it rails.

Its mission once was to balance the public’s need for safe, abundant food with producers’ desire for fair, competitive markets.

Now, however, charges a just-issued report on the $70-billion-plus agency, USDA has been “hijacked” by what the authors call “Big Agribusiness” to turn Abraham Lincoln’s “people’s department” into “USDA Inc.”

Accuracy. The claim is historically accurate.

USDA began the switch-over as the go-go 1970s went-went in the 1980s.

The Reagan administration (“government is the problem”) and the Bush I White House moved from experienced public servants, like Gov. Orville Freeman and Rep. Bob Bergland, leading USDA to agbiz kings like John Block, Dick Lyng and Clayton Yeutter.

Bill Clinton returned to public servants with Mike Espy and Dan Glickman, but the Bush II administration tapped Ann Veneman, an agribiz darling, in 2001.

The White House and Veneman then stocked USDA with special interest and private industry pals.

Revolutionize. The change revolutionized how USDA views itself and what recipe it follows to make ag policy sausage.

Previously, USDA bosses first served their nation, then served themselves; they moved from government to private industry.

Today, that river runs backwards; USDA administrators now move from private industry to government.

The reason for this head-flipping is plain: USDA, Inc. needs USDA et al. to deliver market favors – free trade deals, less regulation, less antitrust oversight, lower taxes, fat farm bills – to compete globally.

At least that’s their explanation.

The results, however, are far more self-serving. Former government-haters now drive the machinery of government to pump up their profits and plow under consumers, producers and Big Ag’s precious free market.

In short, there is more profit in capturing government than in fighting government. Just ask Halliburton, Boeing, Tyson, ADM and Cargill.

The proof. The proof is contained in “USDA, Inc.: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture,” a 40-page white paper commissioned by the Agribusiness Accountability Project and released July 23 by the Organization of Competitive Markets.

(The paper can be found at and

The change. It details five recent “case studies” – USDA’s “mad cow” mess; meatpackers’ unchecked market power; industry-driven meat inspection rules; tax dollars used to aid livestock integrators; and USDA’s endless love of biotechnology – to show how Big Ag, not farmers or consumers, is USDA’s chief client.

This “dramatic” change, the report explains, occurred because “Big Agribusiness has been able to pack USDA with appointees who have a background of working, lobbying, or performing research for large food processing companies and trade associations.”

“Conversely,” it continues, “there are virtually no high-level appointees at USDA with ties to family farm, labor, consumer or environmental working groups.”

Servant. That means the former producer-consumer inclusive USDA now mostly is an exclusive servant of agribusiness.

It also means that farmers and ranchers, once the big dogs in American farm and food policy, are now little tails wagged by giant seed companies, giant meatpackers and giant exporters.

Indeed, the white paper points out, most big farm organizations are so beholding to corporate financial support today that many are wholly-owned subsidies of Big Ag.

Solutions? The white paper recommends four solutions to stem this corporate takeover of USDA and American agriculture.

None are new, but all take guts – by farmers, ranchers, Congress and the media – to return USDA to its true “shareholders.”

First, the revolving door between big business and USDA must have its bearings tightened.

Far too many agbiz masters of the universe walk far too freely between public interest and private gain. Congress should slow the flow and increase oversight of USDA’s big dippers.

Contradiction. Additionally, USDA must sort out the “inherent contradiction” in its mission to both regulate food and promote food producers.

The re-examination needs to restore the balance between “consumers’ need for safe, affordable, accessible food with farmers’ desire for fair, competitive markets and with the corporate quest for profit.”

And finally, producers, public interest groups, the media and government should work to reclaim USDA for the group Lincoln entrusted the agency to at its creation: the people.

(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at

© 2004 ag comm


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.