Memo to Vilsack

A Harvard Fellow can fix America’s broken food system

Congratulations, Thomas Vilsack, on your recent appointment as America’s new Secretary of Agriculture. As you leave Harvard’s Institute of Politics this week for your more spacious new quarters on the National Mall, America’s farmers are doubtless foremost on your mind. But the success of your tenure will more likely be judged by its impact on the 98 percent of Americans who don’t farm but do eat—and to serve them your agency needs radical reforms.

When President Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862, he nicknamed it “the People’s Department,” in recognition of the roughly 50 percent of Americans who lived off farming income at the time.

Today, the USDA has become “the Agribusiness Department”: a revolving door for industry lobbyists and subsidized factory farmers bent on weakening food safety regulations. Given that the agency dispensed $91 billion of taxpayer money in 2008, and is nominally responsible for the safety of most food we eat, this should matter to all Americans.

The USDA’s chief ill is its confused mandate: both to promote American agriculture and to regulate it. The agency has done the promotion job only too well: The average American now consumes around 40 pounds of high fructose corn syrup and 227 pounds of meat, fish, and poultry annually—three times the global average.

But the agency has wholly failed in its regulation task and American consumers have paid the price in sickness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that E. coli O157 infects 73,000 people each year, primarily through the consumption of animal-manure tainted meat. And the World Health Organization finds that Salmonella, whose spread is encouraged by close confinement animal operations, infects another 1.4 million Americans annually, killing approximately 580 of them, and costing the nation $3 billion in healthcare costs and lost earnings.

The health impacts of this regulatory void go further. Factory farmers give their animals mountains of antibiotics to spur rapid growth, such that the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of America’s antibiotics are now used on animals, not humans (the USDA doesn’t even bother recording their use, so no exact figures exist).

This overuse of antibiotics breeds mutant viral strains that spread to the human population through food, water, and even the air downwind of feedlots. Given that the CDC estimates that two million Americans already contract antibiotic-resistant infections each year—and 90,000 die of them—this is a public health crisis.

So how can you change this, Secretary-designate Vilsack? Your first step should be to appoint impartial officials who will challenge the USDA’s culture of complicity. The current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Charles F. Conner, is the former president of the Corn Refiners Association, and the agency’s Chief of Staff is the former chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. As long as agency jobs serve as sabbaticals for industry lobbyists, the USDA will halt reforms.

Next, you should make enforcement of existing laws a priority. For years, Congress has urged the USDA to publicly report violations of the Humane Slaughter Act. Yet a Government Accountability Office report last year found that the USDA had not only failed to consistently report violations, but had actively falsified its reports. Given that two of the last three undersecretaries for Marketing and Regulatory Programs came straight from jobs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—a group with a clear incentive to hide slaughterhouse violations—this should be cause for concern.

Finally, you should start to address the distortionary subsidy system at the source of these ills. Artificially cheap grain has helped make it more economical to intensively confine grain-fed animals than to raise them on healthier pastures—a recent Tufts University study pegged the implicit subsidy to factory farmers at $24 per hog.

Yet intensive confinement has also contributed to the public health crisis described above, created huge environmental waste, and reduced animals’ lives to mere cogs in a machine—all negative externalities of factory farming. And Mr. Vilsack, as you’ll know from sitting in on Ec 10 lectures during your time here at Harvard, taxing negative externalities is a better idea than subsidizing them.

If tackling all this seems like a challenge, Mr. Vilsack, look to the President you’ll be serving. In an October interview with Time Magazine’s Joe Klein, Barack Obama commented on a recent New York Times article by Michael Pollan, the nation’s foremost critic of factory farming. Obama agreed that America’s food system is broken, noting that “our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector … and [is] partially responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs.”

Reforming this broken system will be tough. You’ll need to deliver a tough message to industry: that the UDSA will no longer be a cheerleader for laissez-faire food production, and will instead become a guardian of its safety. And you’ll need to deliver an equally tough message to consumers: that reducing their own demand for artificially cheap, factory-farmed meat will be necessary to stop a public health, environmental, and ethical crisis.

Neither message will be easy to deliver. But leading the People’s Department should be a challenge.

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears regularly.