At the Trump USDA, the “D” Stands for “Dow”

August 3, 2018 | 11:41 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Everywhere you look in the Trump administration, there’s the Dow Chemical Company. Or rather, DowDuPont, as the company has been known since a 2017 corporate merger. The influence of this multinational chemical and agribusiness conglomerate is being felt in regulatory decisions involving Dow’s products, and the administration has pulled multiple Dow executives and lobbyists through the revolving door into high-level government positions.

The latest example of the latter? Meet Scott Hutchins, the career Dow exec and pesticide booster nominated last month to oversee science at the USDA.

Hutchins is a scientist…but is that enough?

To be fair, Hutchins is a vast improvement over the White House’s first choice (remember this guy?) for the job of USDA under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE), a position that encompasses the role of the department’s chief scientist. A trained scientist with a PhD in entomology, Hutchins clearly meets the criteria Congress set for this position in 2008. And to be sure, scientific training and experience with agriculture is critical for the person who will manage the USDA’s four science agencies and its $3 billion annual investment in science to support farmers and protect and enhance our food supply. It was the main reason UCS deemed the previous nominee unacceptable and more than 3,100 independent scientists urged the Senate to reject him.

But do Dr. Hutchins’ scientific credentials alone make him the right person for the job? I don’t think so.

Most of the USDA’s scientific work is carried out in four agencies that Hutchins would directly administer, and their work affects all of us every day. For example:

  • Some 2,000 scientists at the department’s Agricultural Research Service conduct research, often in collaboration with universities, that helps keep our food safe and shapes farmers’ decisions about what to grow and how to grow it.
  • Researchers at the Economic Research Service analyze the state of the agricultural economy, track food prices, and evaluate the economic impacts of farm pollution and efforts to curb it.
  • Number-crunchers at the National Agricultural Statistics Service conduct a 5-year census of agriculture that provides consistent, comparable, and detailed agricultural data for every US county, and analyze other data to identify trends in food and farming.
  • And the National Institute for Food and Agriculture awards grants to scientists working across the country to meet many of our greatest challenges, from fighting hunger and food insecurity to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and preparing the next generation of scientists and farmers.

As the REE under secretary oversees all this work, he or she needs to have an expansive view of our food and agriculture system. And this is what concerns me most about this nomination: There are many ways we can address the system’s challenges, but Scott Hutchins has spent his whole career on just one of them.

A career steeped in Big Ag

Hutchins is a pesticide guy. Since 1987, he has worked to develop and refine marketable chemical solutions to farm pests at Dow AgroSciences’ pesticide and seed division, a unit renamed Corteva Agriscience last year when it was spun off from the newly-merged DowDuPont. If he joins the USDA, he will leave the position of Corteva’s global leader of integrated field sciences; previously, he was Dow AgroSciences’ global director for crop protection R&D.

More than 30 years’ worth of ties to Dow and other agribusiness corporations will be difficult for Hutchins to fully disentangle, as his public financial disclosure form and ethics agreement illustrate. He will receive a severance payment and a prorated 2018 bonus from Corteva/DowDuPont upon his resignation, and the company will continue to pay for his and his wife’s health insurance, for life, under its retiree plan. For two years after the severance and for as long as he participates in the health insurance plan, he’s committing to recuse himself from participating “personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving DowDuPont…though there’s a loophole that allows for a written waiver, which other conflicted USDA officials have received. And anyway, who’s to say that any given decision he’d make at the USDA would have no effect on a company as embedded in the agriculture system as Dow?

Hutchins has also pledged to divest a lot of personal stock holdings—copious Dow stock but also that of Big Food companies including Coca Cola and Nestlé. And he will resign from the Board of Directors of AgriNovus of lndiana (described as “an industry sector initiative formed by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership,” which in turn involves 55 corporations). That’s a whole lot more industry ties he will officially sever but inevitably bring with him, in some way, to the USDA.

Another day, another betrayal at the USDA

This is part of a troubling pattern. We’ve already documented the ways USDA Secretary Perdue—who literally applauded the Hutchins nomination—has catered to large agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers and the public, just in his first year. And the list of industry-friendly actions just keeps coming.

Take the president’s trade war. A July op-ed by Alicia Harvie of the nonprofit Farm Aid is a good reminder that Perdue’s rationale for the trade war—China’s theft of patented GMO seeds from US farm fields—isn’t really about farmers at all:

We should remember that farmers are not the ones who reap benefits from patented seed technologies. Those profits go to the patent-holding company itself, which these days is one of ever-fewer multinational seed conglomerates, while farmers watch their seed prices skyrocket.

The supposed reason for this trade war with China, then, is not to protect farmers — it’s to shelter multinational seed and chemical giants, like Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-Dupont and Syngenta-ChemChina, and other agribusiness giants who benefit from free trade regimes that put corporate profits before people. 

Now, the administration is trumpeting a $12 billion bailout (but don’t you dare call it that) for farmers caught in the crisis the president himself manufactured. But some farmers are rightly pessimistic that the money will end up in their pockets rather than in agribusiness coffers. The Trump USDA’s betrayal of farmers continues unabated, it seems.

Dow and the Trump administration are cozy, and getting cozier

Even among huge agribusiness corporations, Dow is particularly tight with the Trump administration. That relationship began with a million-dollar gift from Dow CEO Andrew Liveris to the president-elect’s inauguration fund. The new president then tapped Liveris to lead his short-lived manufacturing council. (President Trump abruptly disbanded the council last summer after some of its members—though not Liveris—resigned in protest of the president’s response to racist violence in Charlottesville. But that’s another story.)

As Bloomberg reported in April 2017, a pre-merger Dow Chemical nearly tripled its lobbying expenditures between 2008 and 2016.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics,

In 2017, as the Trump administration got underway, the newly-merged DowDuPont ramped up its lobbying even further.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics,

Clearly, Dow saw the Trump era as a promising one for its policy priorities, and it appears they were right. The company’s investment in the Trump administration started paying off in March 2017, when the EPA suddenly reversed its planned ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos in an apparent gift to its manufacturer…Dow. Not satisfied with that win, the company has continued to press the administration and its allies in Congress to weaken pesticide regulations in ways that would harm endangered fish and wildlife.

And now former Dow officials and lobbyists are literally holding the reins of government. The Hutchins nomination brings the number of Dow employees appointed to high-level USDA jobs to three. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, note that there are only 13 Senate-confirmable positions at USDA. Hutchins would join former Dow AgroSciences lobbyist Ted McKinney, who was confirmed last year as USDA under secretary for trade, and Ken Isley, who was appointed (without need for Senate confirmation) to head the Foreign Agricultural Service. Like Hutchins, the two spent many years (19 and nearly 29, respectively) at Dow and its subsidiaries. There’s also Rebekah Adcock, an advisor to Secretary Perdue who was a lobbyist at CropLife America, a pesticide lobby group that counts Corteva among its members, and who got caught last fall opening the department’s door a little wider for her former pesticide industry colleagues.

Add to all this the pending nomination of former Dow lawyer Peter Wright as assistant administrator of the EPA office that manages the Superfund program and other chemical hazards programs—my colleague Genna Reed recently blogged about why that’s so troubling.

Doubling down on Dow

It’s clear that DowDuPont already wields significant influence in the Trump administration. Moreover, Dow and a small number of other multinational agribusiness conglomerates have enormous control over US agriculture and our food system, a situation that pre-dates Trump, of course. The trend toward corporate consolidation has increasingly detrimental effects on farmers (as our allies at the Organization for Competitive Markets explain), and DowDuPont is emblematic of that trend.

For example, with the DowDuPont merger completed and the recently-approved merger of Bayer and Monsanto underway, it’s been estimated that the resulting two mega-companies sell three-quarters of all corn seeds planted by US farmers, and nearly two-thirds of all soybean seeds. Globally, Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, and Switzerland-based Syngenta now sell 59 percent of the world’s seeds and 64 percent of its pesticides.

This is the world Scott Hutchins inhabits, a world in which giant corporations develop and patent a few tools and products that make up the bulk of our agriculture system. It’s a world, and a mindset, that is incompatible with the kinds of ecologically-sophisticated, knowledge-based solutions farmers say they want and scientists urge the USDA to invest in. It’s also incompatible with what eaters are increasingly looking for: healthy and sustainable food. Yet perversely, the Trump USDA is embracing that model as the nation’s official stance on what agriculture should be. With yet another Dow exec in a position of power at the USDA, that model would be reinforced further.

Bottom line: taxpayer-funded research of the kind Hutchins would oversee at the USDA should focus on solutions in the public interest, not Dow’s interest. Ultimately, that’s why UCS is decidedly less-than-enthusiastic about Scott Hutchins. But he is the nominee, and the Senate must now vet his appointment and give their advice and consent. In another post, I’ll share my thoughts on key questions Senators should ask him.