Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Secretary of food"?

In today's New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof calls in his column for President-Elect Obama to appoint a Secretary of Food, suggesting that the Dept. of Agriculture is outdated. Kristof asserts that a Department of Agriculture "made sense" a century ago, when 35% of Americans farmed. Now, however, only 2% of our population are farmers. Meanwhile, he points out, all 300 million Americans eat. He thus argues that we should "move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy--all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars."

While Kristof's proposal could be seen as disrespectful to farmers, his column does suggest a concern for small towns, for rural places. Indeed, he holds himself out as a voice of experience on such places, noting his upbringing on a family farm in Yamhill, Oregon. He argues that the USDA undermines towns like Yamhill by fostering agri-business.

For me, Kristof's column revived a concern I've had for some time: making rural policy through the Dept. of Agriculture does not necessarily serve rural communities well. After all, as Kristof notes, a very small number of rural residents are engaged in farming. So, while I have plenty of gripes about U.S. farm policy, and I'm open to re-naming the Dept. of Agriculture, I'm not sure that renaming it the Dept. of Food is going to be beneficial for rural communities. As long as agriculture and/or food are the labels given to the umbrella institution for making rural policy, the needs of populations, communities, and economies in rural America--especially those which are not ag based -- are going to continue to be overlooked by the federal government.

1 comment:

Mike said...

You’ve just identified a major beef that I’ve had for years. “ Rural” should not be synonymous with “agriculture”. And what scares me is that I doubt significant transformation in our rural communities will be possible until Rural Development escapes the USDA bureaucracy. Perhaps we can look to the Rural Compact ( means of bringing voice to this issue.