If you have an interest in agricultural issues, you are probably familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, as with many agencies of government, what the USDA actually is and what it does isn’t completely obvious. Among the many responsibilities of the USDA are ensuring the safety of certain foods, handling nutrition programs, ensuring access to health education, managing many of the country’s natural resources, encouraging rural development through programs such as home loans and pursuing research that better informs its work.
What Does USDA Stand For?
“USDA” is an acronym that stands for the United States Department of Agriculture. The name refers to one of the 15 departments housed within the executive branch of the U.S. government. Broadly speaking, the department helps carry out laws relating to agriculture, forestry, food and rural development.
What Is the USDA?
There are 15 departments within the executive branch. Each one is headed by a member of the president’s Cabinet and oversees how laws relating to specific topics are implemented. The USDA is currently headed by Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack who was appointed in 2021 by President Joe Biden. One of the most notable pieces of legislation that the USDA is responsible for, and which touches upon all of its areas of responsibility, is the Farm Bill. This particular law is renewed every five years, with a new bill due in 2023.
The department not only implements laws under its jurisdiction, but also interprets them and fills gaps relating to how specific clauses should be implemented. The bills that are signed into law tend to be broad and don’t address every aspect of a program. The departments and their agencies implement specific policies that allow programs and laws to function. One of the laws overseen by the USDA, the Animal Welfare Act, requires that animal breeders and transporters are licensed, but does not outline how that license is to be obtained. The USDA fills in this gap by creating rules that support the intent of the law.
A Brief History of the USDA
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the law that created the USDA on May 15, 1862, its mission was very broad. The department was to perform research on agriculture and then disseminate the findings to the public. Although Lincoln was the one that finally signed the department into existence, there had been interest in creating such a branch of government since the birth of the republic. And despite the passage of more than 150 years, research still remains a central goal of the USDA.
The first commissioner, John Newton — the department wouldn’t be headed by a secretary until later — embarked upon research into improved wheat crops. The department’s research would continue and expand during the remainder of the 19th century, with a focus on increasing crop yields. Research efforts expanded toward the end of the century under Secretary James Wilson, who increased the staff and funding of the department and established the USDA as one of the most significant agricultural research institutions in the world.
The first regulatory role of the USDA was controlling the movement of livestock across state lines in 1884 following outbreaks of contagious diseases. The agency’s legislative purview didn’t grow until 1906 when they were tasked with implementing the Meat Inspection Act and the Food and Drugs Act, which would later be taken away from them. Since then the responsibilities of the USDA have continued to evolve.
The USDA has a long history within the United States and has filled a variety of roles. At one point or another, they have overseen everything from road construction to animal transport and assistance programs.
The present USDA under Secretary Vilsack and the Biden-Harris administration has identified four focus areas: addressing climate change through climate-smart agriculture, forestry and clean energy; advancing racial justice, equity, opportunity and rural prosperity; tackling food and nutrition insecurity; and creating more and better market opportunities for U.S. goods.
What Does the USDA Do?
The USDA continues to perform research in support of agriculture. In addition to this, they also oversee a variety of different programs and administer several significant laws. The department houses 29 agencies and offices and employs close to 100,000 people located across the country. All of these components work in concert toward their goal of “providing leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.”
Within the USDA is the Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). This agency is responsible for ensuring that the meat, poultry and eggs sold in the United States are safe and properly labeled. There are four major pieces of legislation that direct the work of FSIS: the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is entirely dedicated to nutrition programs. Among the 15 such programs that they are responsible for are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school meals. Their programs are far-reaching and serve a quarter of all people in the U.S. each year as they seek to end hunger and obesity.
Among the responsibilities of the Food and Nutrition Service is nutrition education. Toward this end they make dietary guidelines available and are responsible for both the MyPlate guide that replaced the food pyramid and Team Nutrition, which focuses on childhood nutrition.
Natural Resource Management
There are two agencies within the USDA that manage natural resources: the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Forest Service. The first of these, the NRCS, seeks to balance conservation with food production. Its role is to encourage the conservation of private lands used for agriculture. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is responsible for managing 1.9 million acres of forested land across the United States.
Home Loan Programs
The USDA administers loan programs for single-family, multifamily, and on-farm housing in support of its mission of supporting rural development. To be eligible for a loan, applicants must meet certain criteria, including buying a home in an eligible rural area, having a low income, or seeking to construct housing for low-income or elderly individuals.
Research acts as the backbone of the USDA. The department was originally founded as a research organization focused on agriculture, and though their umbrella has spread, research remains at the heart of everything they do. The topics that they evaluate include everything from climate change to rural development and science literacy. If a topic is connected to agriculture in some way, even tangentially, the department considers it within its scope of research.
How Does the USDA Operate?
The executive branch is headed by the president and consists of 15 departments, each with its own focus. The departments are headed by secretaries who collectively make up the presidential Cabinet, essentially an advisory board for the president. These departments each have agencies that handle specific facets of their work. When passing a law, Congress is essentially telling the executive branch what to do. It is up to the relevant executive departments to implement the laws that are enacted.
The secretary of the USDA oversees the 29 different agencies and offices housed under the department of agriculture. The legislation that is largely implemented by the Department of Agriculture includes the Farm Bill, the Animal Welfare Act and various laws related to food inspection.
What’s the Difference Between the USDA and the FDA?
There may appear to be significant overlap between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While these organizations often find themselves working in collaboration with each other, they each have specific roles to fill. The overlap may seem especially close between the FDA and the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). However, the FSIS only regulates eggs, poultry and meat. The FDA is responsible for regulating and ensuring the safety of all other food offered for sale in the country.
What You Can Do
The Farm Bill, a law that governs many of the USDA’s programs, is up for renewal this year, which could mean changes to SNAP benefits, loan options for farms, on-farm conservation and forest management and a host of other programs. You can contact organizations advocating for the changes you want to see. Many organizations, such as the ASPCA, will be attempting to improve farm conditions for the billions of animals used for food production via the Farm Bill, for instance. The bottom line: understanding the 2018 Farm Bill and following the 2023 Farm Bill as it develops can help you better prepare yourself and your community for significant changes.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.