A Stealth Move to Undermine Science at the US Department of Agriculture

November 14, 2018 | 4:54 pm
NIFA research teamPhoto: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Derrick Z. Jackson

In its latest scheme to undermine science, the Trump administration is brazenly trying to—pun intended—farm out to the hinterlands the most important research arms of the Department of Agriculture.

When Secretary Sonny Perdue recently boasted that 136 entities in 35 states are vying for the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), his press release claimed that the move would place scientists closer to many “stakeholders” who live and work far from Washington, DC, would give “significant savings on employment costs,” and would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture.”

It sounds benign enough, but the rhetoric of moving these divisions closer to farming “stakeholders” purposely masks the likely damage to the far bigger world of stakeholders—the American people. The truth is, the move by Perdue and the Trump administration will further disconnect the perspective and expertise of USDA scientists from direct contact with policymaking on Capitol Hill.

Key data and research agencies

The 57-year-old ERS is no household acronym, but it is the principal agency that scours data on the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. It studies nutrition, food safety and food access for the poor, employment in rural economies, and the pros and cons of international agricultural trade proposals and regulations.

NIFA, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, funds research and programs that guide policymakers on improving nutrition and food safety, promoting sustainable agriculture, and keeping American agriculture competitive at a global level.

The data collected and questions explored by these agencies cross-pollinate in Washington, DC with research from the 12 other federal statistical agencies to help Americans understand economic trends and realities in our nation’s urban, suburban, and rural populations. Here’s the rub: these agencies’ collaborative and impartial search for facts is often at odds with the skewed and sometimes false narratives of lobbyists and politicians, such as in pleas for farm subsidies and stereotypes about how low-income mothers abuse food assistance benefits.

Widespread opposition

The Trump administration wants to break up this science-based collaboration, which runs parallel to its more highly publicized efforts to defang science in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Not only that, but the move by Perdue follows an effort earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—a request Congress rightfully dismissed. And this latest attempt to hamstring both ERS and NIFA has similarly drawn the ire of leading scientists around the nation. More than 1,100 of them signed a letter, coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging key Senate and House agriculture committee members to block the move of the ERS and NIFA.

“The world class research carried out through NIFA and ERS comprises part of the science-based bedrock of our food and farm system,” that letter explains. “It empowers producers, businesses, and decisionmakers across the country with the accurate, unbiased data they rely on every day.”

In a stunning display of how seriously this professional community takes the proposed move, 56 former senior administration officials and heads of statistical agencies wrote a similar letter to congressional leaders. The signatories include Susan Offutt, who ran ERS from 1996 to 2006, under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; her successor Katherine Smith Evans; and former leaders from the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, the Internal Revenue Service, the Energy Information Administration, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics. They say the move “jeopardizes” the independence of federal data gathering by increasing “the potential for interference in the direction, design, analysis and release of studies and reports.”

Fears of political interference

Interference should be inconceivable when public health is at stake, as with food safety. For instance, ERS studies whether salmonella testing programs on poultry are effective. A report last year concluded, based on the evidence, that tougher and more clear federal regulations reduced salmonella contamination.

Top critics of the relocation proposal see it as a form of interference. Smith Evans, who ran ERS from 2007 to 2011, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that her former agency “will be decimated. It will not be able to hire the best and the brightest and compete for skilled people if it is relocated in an isolated area.”

Those fears are gaining political traction on Capitol Hill as the USDA Inspector General is now reviewing the proposed move at the request of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). Equally concerning is the fact that Perdue has also proposed to reorganize ERS out from under the Office of Research, Education and Economics and into the Office of the USDA’s Chief Economist. Since the chief economist reports directly to Perdue, many worry the shift will further compromise the agency’s independence.

Steve Gliessman, an emeritus professor and founding director of agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz, is one of many scientists concerned about the proposal. From 2004 to 2008, Gliessman used a NIFA grant to improve the technique for growing strawberries organically. His research demonstrated that strawberries could be grown without pesticides by rotating cover crops that did not play host to diseases that bedevil the berries. Such techniques helped increase acreage for organic strawberries from 134 acres two decades ago to 4,000 today.

Gliessman says he fears that moving NIFA to a more rural state gives big producers more opportunity to influence the direction of research while their lobbyists remain in DC to work over the politicians. Between the two, he worries that advocates for more sustainable, diversified and safer food production will be drowned out.

“I see this resulting as a return to a focus on production and profit rather than a deep understanding of the ecological and social impacts of that mode,” he said. “We’ve seen more than enough of the unsustainable nature of the industrial food model. We really should be moving toward an ecological model.”

A wealth of research and data at stake

The fact is, ERS data and NIFA research have shown why the nation should be moving toward an ecological model of agriculture and a more nutritious food system. ERS has shown that conservation compliance programs, which tie more sustainable agricultural practices to eligibility for federal price supports and relief, work to reduce erosion. It has shown that programs that pay farmers a rental fee to take millions of acres a year out of production work to reduce erosion, pollution, restore wildlife and diversify rural economies through recreation.

Analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists built upon ERS research to show that measures to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Corn Belt could save taxpayers, farmers and businesses $850 million a year, instead of costing the nation $157 billion in lost tourism, fishing, health care costs and water treatment. UCS has also found that sophisticated three-crop and four-crop rotations that preserve soil can lead to higher yields than two-crop rotations.

Among its other contributions, ERS developed the definition for US food deserts and a national atlas of low food access areas, giving the federal government and states specific geographic areas to target with programs, data that helped inform Obama-era healthy food initiatives and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. An ERS report last year found that the percentage of low-income census tracts with large grocery stores or supercenters nearly doubled, mirroring the growth for moderate- and high-income census tracts. Another ERS report showed how the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program helps low-income individuals and families alleviate food insecurity while pointing out a myriad of social and educational challenges to securing the best nutrition.

Those successes are a reminder that you cannot have progress unless you have data as a reference point. “People should understand that it takes decades to assemble the data on issues like this,” Offutt says. “You just don’t go out and instantly collect data on grocery stores or how food is cooked and processed. Home waste is different than waste in restaurants. Food choices change. There’s no single university or institute that can put together the intellectual firepower necessary to get the entire picture as can the federal government.”

As Smith Evans put it, “ERS never says USDA must do this or that. We say: ‘Let’s lay out the facts, and the facts will inform without prescribing. That’s so hard for other institutions to do. It would seem we need that more than ever.”

Offutt added, “My philosophy at ERS and government research in general is that you want to look over the horizon and ask questions two, five, six, 10 years down the road. That’s an important function for a public agency. With this proposed move, I’m really concerned that longer-term view will be lost. If your biggest public agency isn’t doing this work, who will?”

Put another way, if your biggest public agency isn’t doing this long-term work, who is there to protect your food, your health and the environment? If Perdue is allowed to move ERS and NIFA out of the mainstream of federal data gathering, the answer from the USDA will likely be: no one.