One of the more astute observations on the role of government in farm policy ever uttered was offered by then-congressman, later (from 1991-93) secretary of agriculture, Ed Madigan.
“The majority of farmers,” Madigan, a moderate Republican, told me in a September 1984 interview between campaigning around his central Illinois district, “just want to be left alone.” So, added the ranking member of the House Ag Committee, “I leave ’em alone.”
Twenty-five years and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars later, Madigan’s leave-’em-alone admonition remains as true as it is unheeded. A generation of expensive, expansive policy has delivered a corporate food machine whose chief features are fewer farmers and bigger beltlines.
If for no other reason than pure curiosity, you gotta wonder if American farmers and ranchers would be better off had Madigan’s view held sway.
It didn’t and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is, arguably, one of the most complex machines in Washington. And I mean complex.
The department is home to 17 in-house “agencies” as varied as the 40,000-employee, 193-million-acre Forest Service and the National Agriculture Library. It also possesses 12 “offices” such as the very democratic-sounding Office of Congressional Relations to the very soviet-sounding Office of the Executive Secretariat.
For a government department founded as a (non-Cabinet level) distributor of seeds, the department is now embedded in almost every aspect of every forkful of food we grow, market and eat. And it’s time for this to change.
The department needs a new model — or, if you’re more post-modern, a new narrative — to better fulfill its 21st century mission. It’s time for the 100,000-employee and nearly $100 billion-per-year agency to be thoroughly re-examined and largely re-invented.
For example, 100 years ago, the department was the logical food inspector; today food safety needs its own office of inspection and regulation.
All federal food safety functions — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration to Customs to the Environmental Protection Agency to other inspectors and regulators — need one roof, one budget and one boss.
Too big a job? Nonsense; a plan to create this modern “Food Safety Administration,” authored by two influential Democrats, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Connecticut Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro, has been gathering dust since 2005 because the Bush White House didn’t want any new “regulation.”
Fine, neither do you, me, Dick and Rosa. We do, however, want an inspection system that actually inspects.
Today, a food maker has a better chance of being struck by lightning than being visited by a federal inspector and 99 out of every 100 imported food items not only are never poked or sniffed by a U.S. inspector, they are never even seen.
That’s only one part, and a small one at that, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that needs re-invention.
Another is food assistance. Sixty percent of all USDA spending — or about $55 billion this fiscal year — underwrites nutrition assistance programs like food stamps.
Is there a better bureaucratic home, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, for this U.S. Department of Agriculture effort? Shouldn’t we at least look?
Suggested ag summit
On Nov. 5, the day after Barack Obama’s historic election, National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, in a teleconference with reporters, suggested “a national ag summit” to bring together farm and food “players to discuss ideas and lay out solutions” to what he sees are some “very troubling times ahead” for producers and consumers alike.
“We all need to set aside our differences and do what’s right for each other and our nation,” Buis told reporters, and ag is the place to start because, quoting Obama, “America’s farmers are America’s future.”
I suspect small-government advocate Madigan would favor such a summit because it relies on people, not Washington, to fix what’s broken.
Then, of course, he’d want what you and I want: to be left alone.