The next Secretary of Agriculture will have to hit the ground running, because the manure is hitting the fan. Farm income has fallen for three straight years. The farm income to debt ratio is the highest since 1985. President Trump’s decision to tear up the Trans Pacific Partnership, pick a fight with Mexico and threaten other key trading partners limits the potential for expanded exports. Trump’s executive order to crackdown on new immigrants will likely disrupt dairy, fruit and vegetable production and meat processing in the U.S. A series of proposed seed/chemical company mergers threatens to greatly reduce farmers’ seed choices. And extreme weather events linked to climate change continue to disrupt agricultural production around the country.
For his part, President Trump seems to have put farmers and the rural economy on the back burner. Trump’s pick for Agriculture Secretary, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, was the last of his cabinet selections. Perdue is embedded in industrialized agriculture. He grew up on a farm, and has run businesses selling fertilizer, grain and a broad array of agricultural exports. But nothing in his background indicates he has the vision and leadership to address the big and increasingly complex challenges facing farmers today.
A veterinarian by training, Perdue is a political player. He served on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee, where the campaign’s talking points emphasized the need to “defend American agriculture against its critics”, fight the so-called Good Food movement, prevent states from dictating food and agriculture policy, and reduce regulations.
Perdue closest ties are to agribusiness. Perdue has been a champion of the contract poultry industry in Georgia, the largest poultry producer in the country. Like former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Perdue was named Governor of the year by the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO). As Governor, Perdue signed an industry bill restricting local government control over any crop management or animal husbandry. Not surprisingly, agribusiness is a fan of Perdue. His selection immediately won over the endorsement of the National Chicken Council, the American Sugar Alliance, the North American Meat Institute, and the International Dairy Foods Association, among others.
There are conflict of interest questions for Perdue—as there are for many of Trump’s nominees--regarding his continued agribusiness holdings. As a two-term Governor, Perdue refused to put his investments into a blind trust, a break with previous Governors. Later, a series of real estate deals and tax breaks, from which Perdue benefited personally while serving as Governor, raised questions, reports the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Like the President, Perdue has mocked concerns about climate change, writing that those calling for climate action “are so obviously disconnected from reality.” Over the last six months, Perdue’s home state has experienced almost a remarkable series of extreme weather events. First a prolonged drought throughout the southeast. Then, Hurricane Matthew hit southeast states. Followed by intense wildfires in the region. And most recently, a series of winter tornadoes killing 18 people and injuring more than 40 people hit Mississippi and Georgia.
As Governor, Perdue signed into law one of the nation’s toughest laws on undocumented immigrants. But his position seems to have softened in recent years, warning Republicans against a “gang-type mentality” on immigrants.
Perdue’s lifelong status quo approach to agriculture is an outdated skill set and, wrong fit for the 21st century problems of the farm-to-fork continuum. Perdue is expected to come up before the Senate Agriculture committee later in February. Here are some key questions he should answer:
- What will you propose to lift farm incomes and fix the broken Farm Bill? The current U.S. Farm Bill assumes the market will fail farmers, building in programs like revenue insurance to help farmers when prices drop and stay depressed. But the bill is much more expensive than projected by Congress (as IATP predicted)—Congressional Budget Office estimates $10.2 billion of federal income support payments in FY 2017. Simply calling for expanded exports to benefit global agribusiness is a longstanding failed profitability strategy for most farmers. What new policies do we need to lift all farm and rancher incomes, regardless of their size and market?
- How will you address the fallout for the agriculture economy from President Trump’s executive orders designed to restrict new immigrants and refugees from entering the U.S.? The U.S. agriculture economy depends on, and often exploits, immigrant labor. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, about half of all hired farm workers are undocumented immigrants. According to the National Milk Producers Federation, cutting immigrant labor would nearly double retail milk prices, and result in the loss of 208,000 jobs. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said its members include tens of thousands of first generation immigrants and refugees. How can we ensure food system immigrant workers are not exploited and have a path to citizenship?
- How will you improve competition in the agricultural sector to protect farmers? The three proposed mergers in the seed industry threaten to put much of the world’s seed supply in the hands of just three companies (Dow-DuPont), (Monsanto-Bayer), (Syngenta-Chem-China). But this problem is not exclusive to seeds: extreme market share concentration has reduced competition throughout the agriculture sector to the detriment of farmers.
- How will the department lead in helping farmers adapt to climate change and reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions? Nearly every agribusiness company, and a growing number of food companies, are incorporating climate change science into their business models. According to an EPA estimate in 2014, agriculture is responsible for 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emission. Will the USDA support the necessary research to enable farmers to adapt to climate change? Will the agency’s climate hubs be supported? What will you do to advance the agency’s critical soil health initiative?
- Will you support the Farmer Fair Practice Rules issued by the USDA in December to reduce deceptive and abusive grower contracts in the poultry industry? These rules, several years in the making, are necessary to protect poultry growers from unfair ‘my way or the highway’ contracts from big poultry companies. What will USDA do to prevent abusive and deceptive contracts, if Congress votes to disapprove this rule and prevent the development of a “substantially similar” rule under the Congressional Review Act? Will the USDA refer cases of contract abuse and deception to the Department of Justice for prosecution, even if the December rules are annulled by Congress?
- How will the USDA address the growing prevalence of super-weeds and insect resistance (weeds and insects resistant to common herbicides and pesticides) affecting farmers around the country? These superweeds and insect-resistance are a product of consistent heavy exposure to pesticides associated with genetically engineered crops, speeding up the development of resistance. As new, more toxic pesticides are being approved, farmers with few input purchase options are forced to race on a chemical/resistance treadmill. What will the USDA do under your leadership to prevent the proliferation of superweeds and insect resistance?
- How will you address the widely documented problems with food safety inspection? Over the past 20 years, the USDA has delegated more meat poultry and egg inspection authority to plant inspectors, and reduced the ability of federal inspectors to issue non-compliance reports and stop production, as necessary. This delegation of federal authority has been criticized by the USDA Office of the Inspector General and the General Accountability Office for failure to produce robust public health data to justify the program, by whistle blowers who’ve stated that production line speed increases make inspection impossible, and by consumer groups, e.g. Consumers Union, who have documented contamination of a high percentage of poultry products. As Secretary, how, when and why would you direct the Food Safety Inspection Service administrator to remedy the widely documented problems with food safety inspection?
- What is your plan to reduce agricultural runoff into the nation’s waterways? According to a years’ long study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in central and southern Minnesota, nitrates and other chemicals in agricultural runoff have contaminated municipal and rural water supplies, streams and Minnesota’s famous lakes, making them unfit for swimming, fishing and other recreational and touristic purposes. The President has promised to eliminate the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule that would protect our nation’s waterways. What is your WOTUS replacement plan to ensure our rural communities have access to clean, potable water?
These are complex and difficult questions, the answers to which will require effective and innovative leadership, an understanding of farming of all sizes and production methods, the ability to stand up to corporate interests, and an incorporation of current federal and academic science into USDA policy making, particularly when it comes to climate change. The USDA is one of government’s largest agencies with over 90,000 staff, a budget of $150 billion, and programs on agriculture, food and nutrition, energy, forestry and rural development. If confirmed, Perdue’s management of what President Lincoln called “the Peoples’ Department” will deeply affect the lives of farmers, workers and eaters, rural communities and the sustainable use of natural resources for agriculture. If Perdue avoids responding to the kind of questions we have posed above, it will be a sign that the “Peoples’ Department,” will be a Corporate America First department during the Trump administration.