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News Release

Release No. 0198.11
Mary Reardon (202) 694-5136

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USDA's Economic Research Service Marks 50th Anniversary

WASHINGTON, May 5, 2011 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) preeminent economic research agency—the Economic Research Service (ERS)—is observing its 50th anniversary in 2011. Today, ERS marks the occasion with a symposium at USDA's Washington headquarters focusing on both ERS's past and ongoing contributions to public policy and the social sciences, with speakers drawn from inside and outside USDA.

"We all take pride in the historic contributions ERS has made to inform program and policy decisions with sound, credible, objective research findings, data, and information," said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. "We're excited about this accomplishment and we look forward to the opportunities our agency will encounter during the next 50 years."

On April 3, 1961, during the Kennedy Administration and nearly 100 years after the 1862 establishment of USDA, the economic research functions of the Agriculture Department were combined within a single new agency, the Economic Research Service. Its predecessor agency, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), established in 1922, initiated the regular publication of market outlook reports that remain valued stock items in ERS' research portfolio today, and analyzed agricultural policy impacts during the Depression era. BAE functions were dispersed in 1953 to other offices within USDA, but when ERS was formed eight years later, it absorbed a number of economists who had served in the BAE.

The new agency very quickly expanded its focus beyond the farm economy and commodities to include rural economic development, river basin and watershed programs, and resource policy. The growth in ERS' scope of work has paralleled the expanding mission of USDA. Today, ERS analysis and data cover the food industry, diet and nutrition, domestic and global food insecurity, rural development and demographics, and agriculture-related environmental issues, as well as the economic performance of the farm sector, commodity production and trade, and food safety.

ERS is familiar to policymakers, researchers, and journalists who rely on the agency's objective reports and extensive data in their own work. During its half-century existence, ERS has been the source of a number of seminal and influential reports and findings. One of the earliest was ERS' 1963 publication of a landmark report on global food resources written by Lester Brown, who a decade later went on to found the Worldwatch Institute. In the 1970s, ERS pioneered the development of econometric models of national and international agricultural commodity markets, and its projections of production, consumption, and trade help underpin USDA's annual baseline, a resource for each year's Economic Report of the President.

ERS analysis of the implications of curbing agricultural trade barriers has helped strengthen U.S. negotiating positions in successive rounds of multilateral trade talks, starting with the Tokyo Round of GATT negotiations in the 1970s and continuing to the current WTO Doha Round.

An ERS demographer was the first to discover the reversal in the 1970s of the rural-to-urban migration pattern (a pattern that has again changed). In the 1980s, ERS weighed in on food safety with the first comprehensive estimates of medical and lost productivity costs of 16 foodborne contaminants—estimates that underlie cost-benefit analyses for many Federal food safety regulations.

In the environmental arena, in the 1990s, ERS developed the economic foundations for the Environmental Benefits Index that helps ensure the greatest benefit for taxpayer dollars paid to farmers who retire land under the Federal Conservation Reserve Program. In the past decade, ERS analysis of the cost effectiveness of various options for managing farm animal waste led the Environmental Protection Agency to mandate more cost-effective practices than initially proposed.

Each year, ERS publishes a report on the food security of U.S. households that is closely watched and anticipated by nutrition advocacy organizations, policymakers, and the media. The agency also publishes an annual report on the level of food insecurity of developing countries and regions.

ERS has developed a set of geospatial mapping tools to integrate data and to map research results online. Examples in 2011 are an atlas of data on rural and small-town America and a mapping tool to locate "food deserts"—low-income communities where people lack easy access to large grocery stores. Last year, ERS produced its "Food Environment Atlas"—a broad set of statistics on communities' food choices, opportunities, and health outcomes.

Also in the 2000s, ERS has explored the field of behavioral economics, looking at factors that affect food choices among low-income Americans and among children, which could point to improvements in USDA's food assistance and school lunch programs. And the agency has launched research to evaluate the impacts of energy and climate policies including new mandates to increase the production of biofuels.

Further information on the ERS 50th anniversary is available on the agency's website.


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