I’m starting to feel like a broken record. Last month, I listed five ways President Trump had failed rural America in just his first 100 days. A few weeks prior, I’d documented evidence that his administration’s initial (so-called “skinny”) FY18 budget proposal would cut technical assistance for farmers and nutrition assistance used by rural households at higher rates than urban ones.
So now that the White House has released its full budget proposal—almost laughably titled “A New Foundation For American Greatness”—I’m not sure why I’m surprised by it. I guess it’s just hard to fathom the brazenness of the president’s 180 on policy issues and taxpayer investments that really matter to farmers and rural residents.
Making America less great, one budget cut at a time
Early reporting and commentary have characterized this week’s budget proposal as cruel, draconian, and a con. Its combined social safety net cuts would reportedly affect up to one-fifth of Americans, and many of President Trump’s own voters in red states and rural communities would be hit hardest. The proposal’s architects have made rosy assumptions about future economic growth that economists on both sides of the aisle have called into question, and they apparently employed some faulty math to boot. If enacted, the budget would decimate publicly-funded science across many agencies, though Congress will almost certainly reject it, probably forcefully.
In short, there is nothing great about this budget proposal, and frankly nothing American. But its effects on key programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are particularly troubling. Let’s review:
Taking food from people’s plates won’t make America great (just hungrier). The proposed cuts to social programs that help our neighbors in need are mean-spirited and just plain senseless. The White House is proposing to cut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) by nearly $200 billion over 10 years. This highly cost-effective program has a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike. In fact, research has shown that rural households use SNAP at higher rates than urban and suburban households.
(UCS Food Systems & Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt digs deeper on the SNAP program and the implications of these cuts, which would lead to poorer nutrition and needless suffering for millions of Americans.)
And what about USDA programs that specifically serve farmers? That’s not a pretty picture either.
Cutting agricultural research won’t make America great (just less informed). In a blatant attack on science (yes, another one), the president’s budget proposes deep cuts to scientific and medical research across many agencies, including the National Science Foundation (cut 11 percent), the National Institutes of Health (cut 18 percent), and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development (cut a whopping 50 percent). At the USDA, these are mirrored by large cuts to already-small research budgets, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (cut 20 percent) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (cut 30 percent). These programs have funded research on, for example, how cover crops can reduce fertilizer needs and maximize profits, and how different combinations of crops can affect weeds, pests, and drought resilience (see this February post from UCS Senior Scientist Marcia DeLonge for more). UCS has advocated for more agricultural research, not less, and nearly 500 experts have joined us in calling for increased investments in agroecology to help farmers and our environment.
Slashing farm conservation programs won’t make America great (just more polluted). To complete the trifecta of not-greatness, the White House is proposing cuts to USDA programs and technical staff that farmers rely on for help implementing soil, water, and biodiversity conservation practices on their land. For example, the perennially popular (with Republicans, Democrats, and farmers of all stripes) Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides direct financial assistance to farmers, would take an 8 percent hit, and the budget proposes eliminating new enrollments.
And then there’s a proposed 10 percent reduction in “conservation operations,” the pot of USDA money that funds technical assistance to farmers in the field. The stated justification for this last cut (on page 9 of this document) made me sit up and take notice:
Agricultural conservation planning is not an inherently governmental function. The private sector can provide this service, given uniform planning standards that are established by the Government. Currently the private sector offers planning assistance to farmers to implement precision pesticide and nutrient application, which is evidence that the private sector could also provide technical assistance for conservation planning. Farmers and other agricultural interest groups argue that the need for conservation planning is much greater than the funding resources currently available through the Government. When the Government funds technical assistance, it crowds out private sector competition. In the absence of Government funding, the private sector could increase farmers’ access to technical assistance beyond what the Government currently offers.
Hold on…does the Trump administration really imagine that corporate America is just waiting to help farmers implement the most sustainable farming practices? It’s clear that taxpayers, water drinkers, and all of us who enjoy clean lakes and streams have a vested interest in the benefits of conservation practices, but the private sector largely doesn’t. It exists to sell stuff, and the beauty of ecological farm practices is that they require less stuff—less pesticides, fertilizers, and the like. So what would be the private sector’s motivation to step into the breach here? I don’t see it.
And finally, a missed opportunity to make farmers more resilient for the long term
There is one thing in this USDA budget I almost agree with, and that is its proposed limits on crop insurance and other subsidies for the wealthiest farm operators. The budget proposal would limit crop insurance eligibility to farmers making less than $500,000 annually and cap insurance premium subsidies at $40,000. That sounds reasonable, and in fact, our 2016 report Subsidizing Waste called for a reduction in taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies because they drive planting decisions that tend to lead to more pollution. But (and this is important) we think the savings from crop insurance reforms should be invested in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, where they can incentivize better outcomes for farmers and the environment.
So even here, the White House misses an opportunity to do something right, maintaining an effective safety net for farmers while facilitating a shift to practices that build real resilience—to pests, weather, and price fluctuations in any one crop—and making them less reliant on crop insurance in the long run. And while is a debate we hope Congress will have in the upcoming farm bill, it’s not likely to get past appropriators in this form.
But I believe that’s true of this whole mess of a budget. And thankfully so.