USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has stated his mission; “the government must get Americans to eat more healthful foods while also boosting crop production to feed a growing world population.”
Since the end of WWII, every USDA Secretary has embraced boosting crop production as a means of feeding a growing world population. Unfortunately, this policy has meant increasing acreages of corn and soybeans and increasing world hunger.
Fully half of the corn and soy grown in the US is fed directly to livestock. By 2012, one third of the corn crop will go into ethanol. Ten percent, give or take, will be exported and likely fed to livestock, with the rest converted into processed foods, corn chips, other snack items and the ubiquitous high fructose corn sweetener.
As Vilsack sees it, the other half of USDA's mission – “to get Americans to eat more healthful foods” -- is decidedly at odds with feeding a growing world population. I disagree, getting Americans to eat more healthful foods could be the first step in decreasing the acreage devoted to corn and soy production.
The grain-producing farmland that fattens our livestock, powers our cars and sweetens the forty gallons of soda per capita we drink each year is unavailable for the healthy food we should be growing. Rather than pushing South and Central American farmers to export fruits and vegetables to the developed world, we should allow them to feed their own people.
Historically, the USDA has a record of subsidizing commodity crops at the expense of food crops. Their policies have made sustainable and organic production systems the exception, not the norm. Their childhood nutrition guidelines have promoted an epidemic of obesity and type-2 diabetes.
As Vilsack steps in, the pressure is on at USDA; the economy is in a death spiral, the Obama family wants an organic garden for the White House lawn and world hunger is increasing.
Albert Einstein once said “the significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
Clearly, we need to bring new ideas to the table.
If we want a healthier diet, and I say this as a livestock producer, we must move to a diet less centered on animal products. Moving away from grain-fattened livestock will reduce corn and soy acreage making more land available for staple food crops, rangeland and forests.
We need to explore new ways of local food production; hoop houses, grass-based livestock and seasonal eating. We need to produce good food locally and our government must enact economic reforms that enable everyone to afford that food.
Internationally, governments must promote the needs of people over those of market. Blind devotion to free market economics has given us more poverty, more hunger and an ever increasing gap between rich and poor. We must reject the idea that we need to produce cheap food for the poor. We cannot expect farm workers in any nation to labor for less than a fair living wage.
Will USDA continue to bow to economic pressures and pump more grain onto the world market, or actually make meaningful food policy reforms? While breaking up some pavement at USDA and replacing it with a “garden” is a nice start, I wonder, are there any big picture reforms in the pipe?
For the American people, Secretary Vilsack, more of the same will mean more of the same. Without these fundamental reforms, as author Raj Patel puts it we will be left both ”Stuffed and Starved”.