He’s a Science Denier—and He Oversees the Nation’s Farm Policy

, Director, Food & Environment | June 19, 2019, 12:57 pm EDT
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The pattern is clear: by consistently requesting that Congress cut budgets for science, and by decreeing that all federal executive agencies arbitrarily terminate “at least one third” of their advisory committees, the Trump administration is in an all-out war against science—against the premise that evidence and analysis should inform policy-making.

This agenda has been assiduously pursued by Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, in myriad ways: from cynically attempting to appoint a figurehead non-scientist as the Department’s Chief Scientist, to undermining the Department’s world-class Economic Research Service. A prime example of this explicitly anti-science bent is the following curious tale.

On 22 April, a team of economists from the University of Georgia (UGA) released a policy brief forecasting that the newly proposed United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement will result in loss of income and jobs among the state’s fruit and vegetable industry. Alarmed, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA) issued a press release observing: “The conclusions of this study vividly state the economic losses to Georgia’s blueberry and vegetable industries will be considerable,” and calling “on the Administration and our congressional leaders to work together to find an acceptable solution to prevent the devastation forecast in this report.” Whereupon, Sonny Perdue himself wrote in to the Macon Telegraph to say, in essence: The UGA facts are inconvenient. Here are alternative facts more to my liking.

The problem for the Secretary of Agriculture is that he is politically invested in the claim that USMCA is a vastly improved version of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, its predecessor). Among other reasons, this is because Perdue’s signature achievement on entering office was to avert President Trump’s intention to summarily scrap NAFTA. This Perdue was able to pull off by appealing to Mr. Trump’s self-image as a brilliant dealmaker, arguing that instead of scrapping NAFTA the administration should renegotiate the quarter-century agreement in order to forge a better deal for the US. That is why, two years on, after the replacement deal has been crafted and is in line for a Congressional vote—and after it has been roundly assessed as only a marginal improvement on the prior agreement—the Secretary can ill afford doubts about the “better deal” for farmers that was the whole reason for being of USMCA. So, instead of acknowledging the facts of the matter, Perdue insists that:

  1. The USMCA is a “big win” and a major improvement (“Chapter by chapter, verse by verse, USMCA improves virtually every component of NAFTA”);
  2. Nothing is wrong. Georgia farmers live in an agricultural paradise (“Our farmers, ranchers, and producers have an abundance of the highest quality products they want to sell around the globe.”)

As scientists and economists, we specialize in testing claims. Because so much is at stake for farmers in Georgia (and across the land), we have examined Secretary Perdue’s arguments and his evidence.

What’s the deal?

At issue is that imports from Mexico of a group of six fruits and vegetables that are also grown by Georgia farmers have quadrupled since 2009. If this trend continues—as all signs indicate—up to 75% of the jobs currently tied to the production of these crops will be lost because Georgia farmers won’t be able to compete with Mexican prices that can reach as little as half of U.S. prices. Georgia fruit and vegetable growers contend that a component of the Mexican advantage is season extension due to that country’s government subsidies (to expand greenhouse and hothouse capacity), and that therefore the USMCA should contain a protection clause for U.S. producers. If nothing is done, the economic damage ($895 million foregone) would be greatest for Georgia’s rural sector—in particular for three counties where the UGA economists foresee harm comparable to that of the Great Depression.

When politics cloud the view of a public servant

It would be unproductive (not to mention tedious) to dwell too much at length on Perdue’s politicized misrepresentations, because what matters most is what is to be done about the dire circumstance of a Secretary of Agriculture whose actions are clearly harming farmers. However, you really must sample a few of Perdue’s distortions to grasp the Secretary’s malfeasance.

Denying the facts

First, on the core issue, Perdue contends that Georgia farmers are competitive with Mexican farmers. He argues that this is proved by the fact that production of most of the fruits and vegetables considered by the UGA rose over the last decade (under NAFTA). This neglects that the value of Mexican imports has overwhelmed that growth, as the UGA researchers clearly document:

Source: Dorfman, J.H., J.M. Worley, S.P. Kane, 2019. “Policy Brief: The Impact of the USMCA on Georgia’s Small Fruit and Vegetable Industries”. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

Misdirection

Further, Perdue conflates the issue under analysis (fruit and vegetable production—in specific fruit and vegetable growing regions of Georgia) with the overall agricultural economy of Georgia: “Georgia growers have seen vegetable sales increase by more than 23%, fruit and nut sales have gone up more than 100% and crop receipts have gone up more than 50%.” Countering the valid concerns of a segment of Georgia farmers by touting the strength of Georgia’s overall agricultural industry is deliberate lack of acknowledgment of the real threats faced by those farmers. In other words, Perdue claims that the data do not call for action. For the Secretary of Agriculture, whose Department’s vaunted Economic Research Service can rigorously slice and dice agricultural information by any category and geography for which there are data, this blurring of both the point and the evidence is tantamount to willful malpractice.

Special pleading

Then the Secretary critiques the methodology of the UGA economists. He states: “The premise for UGA’s study is USMCA will not protect Georgia farmers from cheap Mexican fruits and vegetables.” This is an accurate premise, per the non-partisan Congressional Research Service: “…the agreement does not include changes to trade remedy laws to address imports of seasonal produce as requested by Southeastern U.S. produce growers.” But Perdue goes on: “Because of that, the researchers came up with imagined scenarios.” The Secretary is referring to a standard method, scenario analysis, routinely employed when socioeconomic trends are not exactly predictable. In such instances, it is common to develop a spectrum of possible future paths. In standard practice, scenario analysts rigorously build (not “imagine”) mild, intermediate and extreme future contingencies that are within the realm of possibility. These the UGA economists specify exactingly: “Based on…Mexican acreage expansion and the observed drops in prices the past few years when Mexican imports entered the U.S. market, the three scenarios were constructed.” The resulting data are presented in toto so that readers can evaluate the range of futures reasonably possible:

Projected Annual Economic Losses Under USMCA by Georgia’s Small Fruit and Vegetable Industry

Scenario Jobs Total Economic Output
Baseline 11,496 $1,192.0 million
Mild Damage 8,172 $852.1 million
Medium Damage 5,704 $589.9 million
Catastrophic Damage 2,869 $297.3 million
 
Losses Relative to Baseline
Mild Damage 3,323 $339.9 million
Medium Damage 5,791 $602.2 million
Catastrophic Damage 8,627 $894.7 million

Source: Dorfman et al 2019.

Try lots of things to see what sticks

In a final flair of science denial, the Secretary exhibits a penchant for whiplashing positions, in swift succession. First Perdue would have it that the UGA findings (that USMCA will put fruit and vegetable jobs and revenue at risk), are “sensational assertions” that “are flat wrong.” But then he acknowledges the lack of protections at issue by saying: “We didn’t get all the improvements we wanted for seasonal fruits and vegetables” and “the UGA study assumed we lost ground, but the facts are it wasn’t ground we had to begin with.” So, is USMCA an improvement for Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers? Yes or no? Since the protections GFVGA wants are not in place in USMCA, will that harm farmers? Yes or no? Are there credible data about the consequences for these farmers of exposure to increased competition? Yes or no? Clearly—and sadly—you don’t look to the Secretary of Agriculture for clear answers on these direct questions. However, the Secretary does have a clear recommendation about what these farmers should do.

In the same statement that first claims: “USMCA benefits Georgia’s entire agricultural industry,” Perdue then hedges with the claim that “…it is not unreasonable that my fellow Georgians would switch to crops that provide higher levels of profit.” In other words, “It is not true that your livelihood will be harmed by increased competition, but if it does, then you’ll just grow something else.” This cavalier approach to farmers’ investment in their crops, the infrastructure to grow and process them, in their technical knowledge and market relationships, is not likely to endear the Secretary to the fruit and vegetable growers of his home state. Nor will the Secretary’s cherry picking of facts and arguments endear him to scientists and economists. For example, to justify his claim that farmers harmed by competition will simply move to different crops, Perdue states: “That is the beauty of our agricultural system — producers plant for the market, not the program.” The Secretary should acquaint himself with his state’s corn, peanut and cotton farmers, who literally depend on planting “for the program” (refer to requirements for “base acres” to qualify for government commodity and crop insurance support).

What Secretary Perdue’s politicized administration means for food and agriculture

To be sure, it is core to market principles that when producers everywhere specialize per their comparative advantage, buyers and sellers everywhere benefit. And that you evaluate the overall effect of economic tradeoffs at an aggregate level, such as the economy of a state or a nation. But the Secretary is not owning up to any of these things. Instead, Perdue dissembles. Pointedly, in an instance where the nation’s Secretary of Agriculture has an opportunity to acknowledge and act upon facts, and to demonstrate a consistent adherence to principles—whether prioritizing the public interest as a public servant; or as an advocate of the market economy who is committed to support entrepreneurs as they adjust to the consequences of policies and trade deals he champions—Perdue exposes himself as a politicized administrator unable to accept verifiable evidence and therefore incapable of providing sound leadership for the nation’s food and agriculture system.

And speaking of verifiable evidence, here are a couple of data points whose consequences you don’t need to be a scientist or economist to understand. Under Secretary Perdue’s watch:

  1. The farm economy has experienced the worst consistent downturn since the 1980s farm crisis, a product primarily of the uncertainty resulting from willful destruction of foreign commodity markets—compounded by climate change, a phenomenon that the Secretary denies, and whose study he characterizes as “junk science.”
  2. The Secretary is actively dismantling the Department of Agriculture’s scientific foundations, the very capacity for research and analysis that we depend upon to make the best decisions, and to best prepare for the future.

Think of scientific and economic policy analysis as the instrument panel that a responsible administrator can use to gather data about the effectiveness of programs, to monitor progress and set accurate direction, specifically, one that would be good for our nation’s farmers, ranchers and our food system. A Secretary of Agriculture who has at his disposal scientific and economic analysis capacity that is the envy of the world, but prefers to “fly blind” in favor of political expedience, is an impaired leader—and one who is actively undermining the rural and farm economy, the nation’s food supply, and the future health and wellbeing of us all.

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