Why President Trump gutting the USDA’s research service is so dangerousRoundup
tags: agriculture, food history, research, government, USDA, Trump
Jamie Pietruska is associate professor at Rutgers University and author of "Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America" and “‘A Tornado is Coming!’: Counterfeiting and Commercializing Weather Forecasts from the Gilded Age to the New Era.”
The recently announced relocation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region is more than an office move. While it will cost more than two-thirds of its 300 employees their jobs, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has celebrated it as “a wonderful way to sort of streamline government.” The implication? That the federal statistical agency is expendable.
The nation’s oldest and most important federal agricultural statistics agency has a long history and reputation for objectivity. The USDA established its Division of Statistics in 1863, just a year into its existence. Created during the Civil War — a period of federal government expansion — this agency was the first long-term commitment to collecting national agricultural statistics. Its founding mission was to produce “disinterested” agricultural statistics as a public good. It sought to protect farmers from market-manipulating middlemen and crop forecasters who had previously wreaked havoc on the agricultural economy.
Nearly 150 years before the term “Big Data” was coined, the Division of Statistics linked farmers, government experts and markets in a vast information network that aggregated data on crop condition, acreage and yield for many crops that Americans depended on to eat and thrive. After the Civil War, the Division of Statistics grew until its virtual army of state crop reporters and local volunteers numbered nearly a quarter-million people.
By the early 20th century, they were submitting 2.5 million reports annually to be analyzed. The purpose of this “statistical machinery” was to produce more precise calculations of national and regional crop yields to reduce the uncertainties of supply and lessen the risk for farmers, merchants and brokers. They protected farmers’ livelihoods during a time when the rise of commodity futures — trading predictions of future prices rather than physical goods themselves — made speculators richer and farmers poorer.
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