USDA bureaucrats lose focus

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


Ranchers, dairymen and pork producers are used to environmental extremists pinning exaggerated blame for "man-made" climate change on animal agriculture. They were understandably surprised and hurt when a U.S. Department of Agriculture internal newsletter last month encouraged USDA employees to participate in "meatless Mondays" as a way to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their health.

It was a tone-deaf suggestion from an agency that we think has grown too large and too distant from its original mission.

For several years the Office of Operations has issued a regular electronic newsletter for employees at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters that touts USDA's efforts to improve energy efficiency, recycle, reduce waste, etc.

Amid stories about the installation of new energy-efficient lighting at headquarters and efforts to make USDA food services sustainable, the July 23 edition of "Greening Update" urged staffers to give up meat at least once a week.

"The production of meat, especially beef (and dairy as well), has a large environmental impact. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases and climate change. It also wastes resources."

The National Cattleman's Beef Association was the first to find the newsletter on the USDA's website and sound the alarm. By the time the story hit The Associated Press wire, the USDA was frantically trying to distance itself from the content of the newsletter.

This raises the question: Is the USDA an advocate and supporter that promotes the interests of those who produce food, or is it a behemoth that has grown so large with a mission so diverse that its bureaucrats have lost touch with its original charge?

USDA was born on May 15, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation authorizing its formation. It was to "acquire and to diffuse" useful information about agriculture, and to "procure, propagate, and distribute ... new and valuable seeds and plants."

At least 65 pieces of major legislation have expanded the USDA's mission over the years. Today, the majority of USDA's $145 billion budget and 110,000 employees don't have anything to do with the production of food or fiber. It is, in fact, a massive welfare and rural development agency.

So it's not hard to understand how an employee of America's agriculture department might not appreciate that animal agriculture is the livelihood for thousands of farmers and ranchers and many more thousands of Americans employed in processing, transportation and retail.

It's unfortunate that any USDA employee could be so removed from farmers and ranchers as to suggest other agriculture department employees stop eating meat.

We think a Department of Agriculture focused on agriculture, and nothing else, would better serve the interests of farmers and ranchers.

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