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USDA Economic Data: Building Blocks for Policy

About midway through USDA’s 150-year history, federal officials decided that economic research and analysis could be a valuable, objective tool in helping farmers – and policymakers – grapple with farm price and income issues. In 1922, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) – predecessor agency of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) – came into existence. The Bureau began regularly producing agricultural market outlook reports (still an ERS staple), and – not surprisingly – its early work included analysis of agricultural policy impacts during the Great Depression.

Employees of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (circa 1930), predecessor agency of the Economic Research Service.

Employees of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (circa 1930), predecessor agency of the Economic Research Service.

Although the BAE’s functions were dispersed throughout the Department in the 1950s, they were assembled again into a single agency, the Economic Research Service, in 1961.  I’ll touch on just a few highlights of ERS activities that illustrate the value of our agency’s work over the past century.

In 2009, ERS marked the centennial of USDA data on per capita food availability in the United States. Over a hundred years of data, housed on the ERS website, track the amount of food available for human consumption and provide a useful proxy for per capita food consumption. USDA had begun estimating supplies of available food in 1939, prompted by the war in Europe, covering data on 18 key commodities. By the end of the decade, the Department had compiled data back to 1909, and the number of commodities was growing.

Today, ERS economists annually produce estimates for several hundred food commodities. ERS has drawn on the availability of data to produce a number of reports on diet quality and the economics of food choices.

Economists at the Economic Research Service confer on a trade-related issue. Photo source: ERS, USDA

Economists at the Economic Research Service confer on a trade-related issue. Photo source: ERS, USDA

Another ERS product that’s widely anticipated at each update – and that also contains a century of data – is our farm income series. ERS has regularly reported on farm income and costs for its entire history – with changes, of course, in procedures and technology. The agency’s estimates and research provide an invaluable perspective on the health of the farm sector and its contribution to the overall U.S. economy. Our website includes USDA data on farm income, expenses, and value added going back to 1910, so that researchers can analyze long-term trends.

The concept of food stamps is based on the work of an ERS economist, Frederick Waugh, who also had worked in the BAE.  Dr. Waugh’s analysis concluded that a food stamp program would be more economically and nutritionally effective than commodity distribution.  His pioneering work in food pricing and food consumption continues to inform our agency’s work, notably our recent research on behavioral economics and dietary choices.

These are just a few prominent examples of the role of ERS in USDA history.  Looking ahead, ERS has the opportunity to continue informing critical public policy issues such as debates around childhood obesity, renewable energy, global food security, and the forthcoming Farm Bill.  Our focus will be on where our agency can make unique contributions via high-quality data and scientific and objective analysis, and in the process continue to make USDA history.

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