The Fox Who Will Guard the Nation’s Henhouses (And Five Questions the Senate Should Ask Him)

January 24, 2017 | 3:38 pm
Governor Sonny Perdue on a visit to Uruguay in 2010. Photo courtesy of Pablo Castro, US Embassy Montevideo/flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

On the final day before his inauguration last week, then-President-elect Trump finally chose a nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, the last cabinet post to be filled. The months-long selection process was circus-like, with as many as a dozen candidates floated. Early on there was the Democrat. Then there was the foul-mouthed rodeo cowboy. Along the way, there was the former university president and the strawberry-farmer-turned-politician (either of whom would have been the only Latino in the cabinet, but oh well). Late in the game, there was even a banker who threw his own hat into the ring. But in the end, the winner was the first guy interviewed, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

USDA—still the people’s department

Before we look at Perdue’s background and approach to agriculture, let’s review the mission of the department he has been nominated to run. The US Department of Agriculture was established in 1862 by an act of Congress that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln later referred to the USDA as “the people’s department,” an apt moniker because at the time, about half of his countrymen and women lived on farms.

But even today, the USDA and the broad range of policies it administers touch every American. From crop subsidies that drive decisions about which foods farmers grow, to incentives and technical assistance to curb farm pollution, to the MyPlate dietary guidelines, to billions of dollars for food assistance programs and subsidized school lunches, the USDA affects us all.

And as the Trump administration gets under way, the state of our farm and food system is one of the most critical issues affecting all Americans. Our system is out of balance, with numerous USDA policies working at cross-purposes. Some policies attempt to increase Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others subsidize crops largely fed to livestock or destined for processed foods.

Overall, a recent UCS policy brief shows that US food policy is failing many farmers, rural communities, and working people. Workers in the agriculture and food industries have less purchasing power; farmers’ and ranchers’ productivity and long-term resilience to pests, weather, and other challenges are diminished; the nation’s drinking water is threatened by farm runoff; and the health care sector is reeling from the costs of diet-related diseases.

Sonny Perdue knows ag (Big Ag, that is)

But back to Governor Perdue…whose real full name is George Ervin Perdue III, and who is no relation to the chicken company family. The tractor-patterned-tie-wearing former Peach State governor (2003-2011) grew up on a farm and was a practicing veterinarian before getting into politics. A registered Democrat before switching parties in 1998, the governor once led a public prayer for rain on the steps of the state capitol during a 2007 drought. He claims to have captured his new boss’s imagination at their first meeting last November, telling reporters President-elect Trump “lit up” to hear Perdue talk about his farming and business credentials.

I wrote recently that other Trump administration nominees seem likely to double down on corporate dominance of our food system, and Perdue appears to be no exception. Since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2011, Perdue has run a string of agriculture-related businesses in Georgia, including grain trading and fertilizer interests. In addition to this background in agricultural commodities and trade, he has indicated support for deregulating farming. And as my colleague Genna Reed pointed out last week, he has ties to The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company and an end-user of subsidized corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

In recent years, the USDA has launched a range of initiatives to elevate diversified farming, improved nutrition, and equitable access to healthy food. President Trump and Governor Perdue seem unlikely to champion such programs, and they may even roll back some important advances. A post-election news report summarized a list of talking points the Trump campaign had sent to its agricultural advisory committee (of which Perdue was a member), which indicated that the campaign had prioritized “a shift back to conventional agriculture…fighting the so-called good food movement and undoing Obama-era agricultural and environmental policies.” If he is confirmed by the Senate, Perdue will presumably be expected to carry out these campaign promises.

In a statement last week, my colleague Ricardo Salvador called Perdue “quintessential Big Ag,” and Big Ag seems to agree, based on effusive statements from industry lobby groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Grain and Feed Association. Reactions from groups that truly represent farmers, including the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, were more tepid.

Five questions the Senate should ask Governor Perdue

Perdue will have a confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee (on which his first cousin, Republican Senator David Perdue, sits). That hasn’t been scheduled and probably won’t take place for weeks. But while we’re waiting, here are five questions I’d like to see Senators ask him, to probe his intentions for a farming and food system that serves all of us—including the struggling farmers, rural communities, and working people his new boss purports to champion:

  1. How would Perdue use federal agriculture policy to stimulate innovation, boost farmers’ livelihoods, and revitalize rural communities? The last 30 years have seen worrying trends in the demographics of farming and the economics of farm communities. Farmers are getting older—in 2012, the average age was 58.3 years—and high land prices mean that farmland is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Midsize family farms, historically the backbone of rural economies in the United States, have been disappearing for almost two decades. Nearly 56,000 midsize farms were lost nationally between 2007 and 2012, but UCS has proposed policies to bring them back, along with new jobs, by building local food systems and connecting farmers to them. Would Perdue support such policies?
  1. With America’s farmers increasingly facing the impacts of global warming, how would Perdue’s USDA help them cope? Just last week, a new study predicted that global warming will have a profoundly negative effect on US farmers, potentially slashing harvests of corn and other commodities by half due to heat and water stress. In already hot regions like the governor’s home state of Georgia, the distress of last year’s severe drought is still fresh, and we can expect more to come. According to my scientist colleagues Marcia DeLonge and Andrea Basche, farming systems that build soil organic matter and renew the nation’s grasslands are critical to helping farmers cope with future droughts…oh, and also floods. Will Governor Perdue seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and technical assistance to help farmers become more resilient?
  1. Does Perdue support maintaining funding and standards for the nutrition programs administered by the USDA? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provides a critical safety net for low-income families. And 2010 legislation to upgrade federal school meal programs is already paying off in the form of improved nutrition for the nation’s children. Still, children born in the 2000s have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, thanks to spiking rates of obesity and diet-related diseases that occur at ever-younger ages. And children of color are disproportionately affected, as obesity rates have leveled off for white children but continue to climb for African American and Hispanic children. A recent UCS analysis revealed that living near fast food outlets and convenience stores is associated with higher diabetes rates—especially in counties with relatively large populations of color. Diet-related diseases also add many billions of dollars each year to our national health care bill: treating heart disease and stroke, for example, cost an estimated $94 billion in 2010, and this figure is projected to nearly triple by 2030. Will Perdue support important programs to combat this public health crisis, or roll them back?
  1. Would Perdue support recent efforts at USDA to increase funding for agricultural research? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. In the last Congress, House and Senate appropriations committees voted to boost funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers be productive, sustainable, and resilient to future challenges (see #2 above). Agroecological research, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. More than 400 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecology. Will Perdue support such investments in farmers and our food system?
  1. Would Perdue respect science as a critical component of decision making at the USDA? It is imperative that the USDA and other federal agencies maintain high standards of scientific integrity in the new administration. More than 5,500 scientists have called on Congress and the Trump administration to ensure that federal agency actions remain strongly grounded in science to safeguard the public, that agencies and departments adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence, and that they provide adequate resources to enable federal scientists to do their vitally important jobs. Will Perdue commit to maintain such standards and uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy?

I hope the Senate will thoroughly vet Governor Perdue, and encourage him to re-think our current industrialized commodity agriculture and processed food system. Doubling down on this failed system will harm farmers, put consumers at risk, and create unnecessary costs for taxpayers. UCS will be watching his confirmation process, hoping to see signs that he seeks to promote a more innovative, healthy, and sustainable system—one that would benefit farmers as well as eaters and our shared environment.