Do We Need a Department of Agriculture?

Devin McCullen reminds me that I once tweeted questioning the need for a Department of Agriculture and in response to pushback promised to blog on the topic at greater length. But then I never blogged on it at greater length.

Here’s the argument in brief. The USDA’s activities fall into four broad groups:

1) Things that have nothing to do with agriculture (USDA grad school).
2) Farm subsidization that we shouldn’t be doing.
3) Food safety stuff that could be merged with FDA.
4) Nutrion assistance stuff that could be done by HHS.

I would posit that locating programs aimed at 3) and 4) in a bureaucratic structure dominated by 2) winds up undermining their mission. Food producers, rather than food eaters or social service recipients, are the main “client” of the USDA in a way that compromises the priorities of some of its component agencies. The logo, for example, is meant to suggest amber waves of grain rather than poor children eating nutritious and safe food:

File:USDA logo 1

That said, I think the lesson of the Department of Homeland Security is that attempting to rearrange cabinet agencies can create a lot of problems and is probably more trouble than it’s worth. The real agenda here is to curb farm subsidies, which would be hard enough on its own terms.


I’m reliably informed that the USDA Graduate School has already been divorced from the Department of Agriculture and for the past few years has just been “the Graduate School.”

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