You can get a little glimpse of the future by studying the fight between the Florida Department of Citrus and Sunny Delight, the fruity drink the department claims is a collection of chemicals masquerading as some kind of orange juice.

Florida doesn’t want a giant company, Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati, to cash in on its reputation for producing real orange juice from real oranges.

There will be other fights like that in the future as the produce business tries to protect its pristine image from the commercial coattail hangers or even government agencies bent on building up regulatory empires by magnifying any food safety incident.

The produce industry is going to be challenged to protect its family jewels, its golden brands, whether they be Washington apples or Idaho potatoes or Texas onions or a hundred others.

Another challenge will be to save some kind of business relationship between growers and mid-size shippers and the new global food companies now forming. The prime example is Royal Ahold, the Zaandam, Netherlands-based giant that is now the world’s first global food retailer.

Ahold operates in a couple of dozen countries, under 36 chain store names, with $70 billion in sales, and now has thousands of stores in the U.S. and 9,000 worldwide. Its strategy is to “act globally, think locally,” but it is beginning to consolidate its produce buying in the U.S.

At the same time, company officials say they want to preserve a relationship with growers and produce suppliers. Ahold has been meeting with groups of suppliers, sometimes hundreds at a time, to explain company policies and practices.

Ahold says it wants to retain local relationships, such as its “Locally Grown” program for its Food Giant stores in the Washington, D.C., region, that features local growers. A lot of people will be watching to see whether hugeness and localism can live side by side. If not, then suppliers will have to consolidate or go out of business.

Another constant challenge is going to be finding ways to compete in a global market. George E. Smith of Midsummer Marketing in London, which represents U.S. produce companies, says Europeans don’t need U.S. produce — they have many other choices. They will buy American only if items become “fast-moving consumer goods,” or FMCGs, and not just commodities. An example is Washington apples, which are backed by promotions and contests to create consumer excitement. That takes work, money, coordination, attention to detail and deep knowledge of local markets.

Smith has helped create American FMCGs in Europe, and it has paid off. But the EU is both customer and competitor, and its infamous produce and farm subsidies will continue in some form as the EU prepares for a major expansion into Eastern Europe.

That raises the whole question of government policies and programs. The new farm bill, which has passed both houses of Congress, but in different versions, maintains the old programs of subsidies for grain crops, and rather minor help for produce and other nonprogram crops. Can the produce industry thrive —even survive — without massive government intervention, either through direct subsidies or indirect help?

That question is up in the air. The European Union may again have provided the answer. Their answer is no. Sadly, some kind of help may be needed, either directly or through other means, whether it’s produce purchases, insurance, product research, payments for conservation or export help. There may be a need for market-loss payments on a case-by-case basis. That’s the reality.

In Europe, they justify these kinds of payments by arguing that “agriculture is not just another business.” It is too important to treat like car lubrication shops and hardware stores. Food is a necessity. Farmland is a great resource. The countryside requires care and feeding.

In Britain, which has been devastated by foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease, rural areas are hurting. Many areas were simply closed to the public. The government is accused of being callous and uncaring because “fruit trees don’t vote.”

At the same time, the British recently have scrapped their Department of Agriculture and broken it up. There is a department dealing directly with farming and food. A new Food Safety Agency was created to operate separately. And a Countryside Commission was created to deal with rural development, including new businesses and ways to build rural relationships with the powerful urban sector.

Maybe the U.S. ought to look at this model. Changing with a changing world makes a lot of sense, even for government agencies.
Here is a modest proposal for change to put food, farming and business development at the forefront.

First, eliminate the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it is constituted. Move the feeding programs, which are mostly welfare oriented, over to Health and Human Services. That’s more than $40 billion, which is half the budget. That means welfare overshadows agriculture in the USDA. Would the USDA lose clout? What clout?

Second, move the food safety programs over to the Food and Drug Administration. That’s where most of food safety is. That will eliminate the need to duplicate programs, such as pesticide and microbial testing of produce at the USDA.

What would remain of the USDA would be tightly focused on farming, research, food marketing, value-added, exports, plant protection and rural development, including new industries. It would be a leaner, cleaner USDA, with limited goals that can be carefully measured.

Move most of the USDA out of Washington, D.C., and put its agencies in the heart of the country, where agriculture is crucial. Leave behind a remnant, a Cabinet office and a congressional liaison. A number of countries have dispersed their agencies outside their capital cities. Germany is one example. The U.S., with its vast size, ought to do the same.

There is no reason to spend millions to rehabilitate the 1930s symbol of monstrous government, the South Building, when people could be shifted out of congested Washington to where agriculture is more than an abstraction.

These changes would say that the federal government is so committed to its farms, rural areas and small towns that it is willing to focus on them and not on a thousand other things. The so-called People’s Department needs to find out where its bread is buttered.