by Marion Nestle
Nov 11 2011

Oh no! USDA cutting back on research.

A couple of days ago, William Neuman wrote about an announcement by the USDA’s statistical research unit that under pressures to cut budget, it would eliminate or cut back on its ongoing research reports.

This is alarming.

As USDA explained:

The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now.

The affected reports include these, among others:

  • Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate
  • Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all
  • Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate
  • Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage
  • Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate
  • Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report
  • Nursery Report – Eliminate

This decision, Neuman reports, “reflects a cold-blooded assessment of the economic usefulness”—translation: lack of political clout in the affected industry—of the 500 or so reports issued by the National Agriculture Statistics Service each year.  The reports will still be issued on the big commodities: corn, soybeans, cattle, and pigs, for example.

Why do I find this alarming?  If these reports can be eliminated, so can the ones that I personally care about and depend on for my research.

I am particularly worried about the invaluable data produced by USDA’s Economic Research Service on the composition of foods, their availability (production less exports plus imports), and per capita nutrient availability in the American diet.

I have plenty of reason to be worried.

For decades, USDA has converted information about food availability to nutrient availability in a continuous series dating back to 1909.  This is the data set I use to explain how calories in the food supply have increased to today’s 3,900 per person per day from 3200 in 1980—an increase of 700 calories per day exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

USDA stopped this series in 2006.

I wrote USDA to ask whether more recent data were available.  Here is the response in its entirety:

Because of other project priorities the Food Supply project has been curtailed.  There are programming issues to which we haven’t been able to devote available resources.

Neuman quoted a former USDA official who argues that pressures to continue the statistical reports are an example of

how hard it was to eliminate a government program, no matter how small the constituency….These congressmen up on the Hill say, “$50,000 is not much, let’s give it to them.”   [The reports apparently cost about $50,000 to produce]

I have a different reaction.  Isn’t it a responsibility of government to produce research that nobody else has the resources to produce?   This argument reminds me of similar ones I hear that if a book hasn’t been taken out of a library in ten years, the library ought to dump it.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, $50,000 seems like a lot of money to you and me, but it is peanuts in comparison to the billions the USDA spends every year on support payments to people who aren’t even farmers.

Hence: alarming.

  • Roxanne

    They are dumping the bee and honey report? Seriously? One of the most important insects to agriculture that is being seriously threatened with Colony Collapse Syndrome, and they think it’s a service to farmer’s to discontinue the report? Get your priorities straight USDA!

  • NYFarmer

    Dumping statistics on numbers of livestock farms will make it even more difficult for us, the “farmers of the middle” to be heard. Slipping into invisibility here….

  • Kira

    Dumping crucial reports all to only save $50,000 a year. That’s the salary of one 1-1.5 people depending on where you live. This saves nothing at all, $50,000. Nothing. And we loose so much, a rotten trade off.

  • The bee problem is critical. Ignoring this problem is typical of the ruin of decency in this country. It is like the football coaches who ignored 10 year old boys being sodomized in their locker rooms.

    It will be the ruin of the system.

    and in addition;

    At their upcoming meeting, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has the opportunity to close loopholes and strengthen the regulations, but a handful of corporate sector Board members are attempting to do the exact opposite: watering down the standards.

    They have a proxy letter they want you to sign to prevent the factory farm takeover of the organics industry.

  • NYFarmer

    Kira, The 2009 pay of Dean Foods CEO (nation’s largest milk processing corporation) was $60,000,000 (Bloomberg Reports). Of course, the number of dairy farmers in the US has gone from 600,000 to 54,000 in my lifetime. Pretty soon, there won’t be many of us to count anyways, especially in New York State.

  • Gloria

    All the more reason to make food producers required to produce the nutrition label information in a common database format,that is also publicly available. It would cost them almost nothing, and at the end of the year they could be required to report units sold. The uses for researchers are obvious. But this info is also important to consumers. I fear that younger people don’t find the packaging label useful as they are used to having everything digital. The fact that 2 Oreos has 100 calories is only important in the context of the other food choices one has made that day or week. And if I ate 4 of them I’d like my smartphone to automatically add up the info for me. I fear that a nutrition label on a package is a bit like a hand-written scroll to a young person who conducts most of life digitally.
    Commercial companies such as, and many more employ hundreds of elves to manually produce this information and their databases are currently exponentially bigger than that of the USDA. Try searching for “Fage non-fat yogurt” in both places.

  • Anthro

    I’m speechless.

  • NYFarmer

    Gloria, what happens when you enter Fage yogurt? Do different stats come up? Not sure which data bases on each to go to. The milk from my farmers coop (about 50 of us mostly grazing cows in Upstate NY) goes to the Fage plant nearby. Its been the main new source of jobs in our area in a long time and a good thing for us farmers to have competition for the milk instead of just Kraft and Kraft.

  • Gloria

    NYFarmer –
    I love Fage but I was wondering about the origins of the milk. Good to know at least your bit is grazing.

    My point is if you go to a site such as and then enter food into the MyPlate section you will get tons of responses. Hopefully you can find the exact product you are looking for – and the info from the nutrition label. The problem is that this information is either a)user generated and needs to be verified for accuracy, or b)generated by the web site and requires a serious investment on the part of the company. This would all be much more consumer-friendly if the companies were required to provide the nutrition label in a digital format and have it publicly available.

    here you go – three pages of answers. and if you type in something more specific, like “fage yogurt with honey”, you get fewer and more helpful answers.

  • NYFarmer

    Gloria. I see what you mean. About Fage, they, along with Chobani, have come up from nothing in the past five years. Fage is located about 20 miles from my farm. Most of the milk would be from an easy driving radius around Fage because fluid milk is costly to transport. The characteristics of the Mohawk Valley area milkshed surrounding Fage includes a lot of grasslands used for cows, either in form of grazing or grass hay and silage for the winter.
    Most dairy farmers would welcome a factual and uniform analysis of nutrition content of various products. Lately, yogurt manufacturers have been notorious among us dairy farmers for adding “junk” to extend the actual amount of dairy product used. Some of the items added are not really approved as “food” by the FDA but the FDA looks the other way. I think if you google “Milkweed” and “yogurt” you might find some information that will surprise you. Junk foods are also loaded with Milk Protein Concentrates, another milk derivative used to extend out the actual dairy product included. Until recently, almost all Milk Protein Concentrates are imported. A few US companies have now started to make them too to make it more cost effective for junk food to get their MPC’s here in the US.
    Personally, I think eating “real” is the best way to go. Thanks for pointing out the labeling idea, I will pass it on to the farmer-thinkers I know.

  • NYFarmer

    Gloria, one last thing. We farmers have fought for Country of Origin labeling on dairy product origin. The global food companies tell us farmers this would “confuse consumers”.

  • Gloria

    Gloria -thank you so much for this information. It is VERY helpful, as I eat a lot of yogurt, and so do my kids. There are so many things to be concerned about (grass fed, humanely raised, organic, no additives, GMO) I find that sometimes i have to prioritize and wrt dairy I look for grass-fed and humane, then organic, although I would certainly prefer all three. Would you happen to know anything about the Trader Joe’s brand Greek-style yogurt? I know that the east coast distributor is in Needham, MA, but don’t know where the milk comes from or even where the yogurt is produced. I eat both brands. I agree about the “real” food. Sometimes that pins me against my vegetarian friends but so be it. But I will be on the look-out for added MPCs. And I love country of origin labeling. I think everything should have it.

  • Daniel

    Neuman alludes to sheep stats being collected since the year after USDA was founded. Lincoln is most certainly rolling in his grave on this one. See objective #1.

    In his first annual report, [Agriculture Secretary] Newton outlined objectives for the Department. These were: (1) Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information; (2) Introducing valuable plants and animals; (3) Answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture; (4) Testing agricultural implements; (5) Conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains, fruits, plants, vegetables, and manures; (6) Establishing a professorship of botany and entomology; and (7) Establishing an agricultural library and museum. These objectives were similar to the charges given the Department by the Congress in its legislation establishing the new agency.

    from Lincoln’s Agricultural Legacy

  • Kat

    Saving $50,000 at the expense of how many businesses that will fall by the wayside? Is that the point of this?

    MyPlate progress or not, BigAg still holds the government in the palm of its hand.

    So what happens next?

  • According to the article, the reports being eliminated cost a total of $11 million. Still not a lot of money though. That fancy military jet that takes off vertically costs more, and it’s not even edible. But we all know that this is not about budget. It’s about political will. Federal farm policies and programs are one of the reasons why the constituencies for these reports are perceived as small (though even that characterization is not entirely accurate) – our country’s agricultural policy overwhelmingly favors very large scale farming, and that has been decimating the number of small to midsized farms for the past 50 years.

    In particular, my research will be negatively impacted by the loss of the reports on farm numbers and farm incomes. I believe that the decision to cut this report is anything more than the big ag lobby fearing the growing support for smaller scale agriculture. Numbers from those reports are widely used and heavily relied on by the increasing number of advocates and researchers working on sustainable agriculture issues.

    Another wrong-headed move by shortsighted leaders. And can I just say that leading the article with a report on mink-farming is really not fair? It’s easy to stir up opposition to fur coats.

  • Dear Marion,

    Please see this video from the European Commission about food additives,

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  • gv

    must read..Homeopathy

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