Stupidity? A newsletter writer with an axe to grind? An honest mistake? An insight into President Obama’s “true” USDA philosophy when it comes to what America should eat and what he really thinks about U.S. animal agriculture?
These are the questions and excuses being asked and made for what can only be called an unprecedented breakdown in adult supervision at USDA, the posting July 23 on USDA’s website of an employee newsletter encouraging USDA workers to embrace “Meatless Mondays” in order to save their health and the planet. Here’s a slightly abbreviated, but accurate excerpt from the offending section of the “USDA Greening Update:”
“One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative…How will going meatless one day of the week help the environment? 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. It takes 7,000 kg of grain to make 1,000 kg of beef. In addition, beef production requires a lot of water, fertilizer, fossil fuels, and pesticides. In addition there are many health concerns related to the excessive consumption of meat. While a vegetarian diet could have a beneficial impact on a person’s health and the environment, many people are not ready to make that commitment. Because ‘Meatless Monday’ involves only one day a week, it is a small change that could produce big results. Did you notice that our cafeterias have tasty meatless options? So you can really help yourself and the environment while having a good vegetarian meal!”
This absolutely incredible gaffe on USDA’s part came to me in a July 25 email from a writer buddy in Kansas City who lives on USDA’s website in hopes he will/won’t find such things. I relayed it to the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition (FAWC) – plus some groups unwise enough not to be FAWC members – and what followed can only be described as the epitome of collective ag – producer, corporate, association, customer – outrage, amplified by some serious USDA gigging by ag journalists who caught wind of the situation. In less than two hours from receipt of the original email, USDA “tweeted” its retraction and pulled down the offending website. The official response? “USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. The statement found on the USDA website was posted without proper clearance and it has been removed.” No attribution to any ranking USDA official, just an official “oops…we bad.”
Congress quickly got on the bandwagon. Rep. Steve King (R, IA) was the first to tweet his outrage: “USDA HQ meatless Mondays!!! At the Dept. of Agriculture? Heresy! I’m not grazing there. I will have double rib-eye Mondays instead.” Sen. Jerry Moran (R, KS) took to the Senate floor, saying, “Never in my life would I have expected USDA to be opposed to farmers and ranchers. American farmers and ranchers deserve a USDA that will pursue supportive policies rather than seek their further harm.”
What immediately followed were email conversations and postings to listserves that conjectured how an act so blatantly thoughtless could have happened. The kindest of these observations was that the official clearance process broke down as USDA tries to juggle the 2012 Farm Bill, the drought, calls for a waiver of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), etc.; the more cynical attributed the posting to an inadvertent revelation of the true colors of this USDA when it comes to animal agriculture, meat consumption and overall support of farming and ranching.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA), in the midst of its mid-summer meeting in Denver, was the only group to issue a press release. I’ve abbreviated it, but here’s what NCBA’s leadership had to say: “NCBA President J.D. Alexander said the USDA’s recent announcement that the agency embraces the ‘Meatless Monday’ concept calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers…the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative…is an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption. ‘This is truly an awakening statement by USDA, which strongly indicates that USDA does not understand the efforts being made in rural America to produce food and fiber…This move by USDA should be condemned by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet,’ Alexander said. USDA goes one step further…by specifically calling out beef and dairy production as harmful to the environment. Additionally, USDA cites health concerns related to the consumption of meat. These concerns are not at all based in fact…but simply spout statistics and rhetoric generated by anti-animal agriculture organizations…Alexander said NCBA will not remain silent as USDA turns its back on cattlemen and consumers.”
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I believe all of President Obama’s USDA appointees are flaming vegetarian/vegan activists eager to drag us into veggie-centric dietary enlightenment. But just as this colossal misstep on USDA’s part was a wake-up call for a lot of aggies, so, too, should it be a wake-up call for USDA.
To paraphrase the cattlemen: U.S. farming and ranching will not remain silent if USDA turns its back on animal agriculture.