27 May 2011

USDA and nutrition: The fox guarding the chicken coop

The group, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has a fantastic paper on their website about the inherent conflict between agriculture and healthy policies in the U.S.

According to their website, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) bases their strategic plan on a number of key activities:

- Expanding markets for agricultural products
- Developing alternative markets for agricultural products
- Providing financing needed to help expand job opportunities and improve housing, utilities and infrastructure in rural America.

This financing takes a number of different forms, but a major one is billions of dollars in direct subsidies to food producers.

Where does all this money go?

Commodity Crops
Between 1995 and 2009, the USDA gave more than $246 billion in subsidies to support commodity crops. This is the name given to a group of more than a dozen non-perishable crops. However, five crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice) get almost all of the subsidy money.


Between 1995 and 2009 subsidies to dairy producers totalled $4.8 billion

Between 1995 and 2009 various subsidy and support programs provided a total of $3.5 billion to meat producers.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
The USDA refers to fresh fruits and vegetables as “specialty crops.” Specialty crops do not receive federal subsidies.

So, the USDA works to expand markets for farmers who produce commodity crops, dairy and meat and their mandate is to promote what’s best for the bottom line of those industries.

That’s fine. No problem. I’m all for farmers, or anyone else for that matter, having an umbrella organization or association that can lobby and advocate on their behalf. All good.

But lobbying on behalf of farmers isn’t the USDA’s only job. Nope. They’re also responsible for educating Americans about nutrition. Yup. They’re the ones who built the iconic food pyramid back in 1992 and they’re the ones who teach our kids what they should be eating more of.

Hmmm, anyone else starting to see a problem here?

You can’t on one hand advocate for the meat and dairy industries to sell more product, and on the other, claim to be developing nutritional education information that has the best health of Americans at heart.

It’s like letting the gun manufacturers write the laws on firearms.

It’s like letting big tobacco companies write the laws about marketing cigarettes to kids.

It’s like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.

Sara Best | @shbest
Sara was literally born into the animal welfare movement. While growing up, her father worked with various organizations on campaigns from the Canadian seal hunt to the slaughter of dogs in the Philippines to the ivory trade in Africa. Eventually, Sara became involved in animal protection projects herself. Now she is a writer living near Toronto, a mom to two little omnivores and married to one dedicated carnivore. Visit Sara's blog.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/jshappell