After two months, President Trump’s selection for Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, will finally have his confirmation hearing this week. If he navigates the confirmation, he’ll have to hit the ground running, because the manure is hitting the fan in farm country.
Farm income has fallen for three straight years. The farm income to debt ratio is the highest since 1985. President Trump’s decision to tear up the Trans Pacific Partnership, pick a fight with Mexico and threaten other key trading partners limits the potential for expanded exports. Trump’s crackdown on new immigrants will further disrupt dairy, fruit and vegetable production and meat processing. A series of proposed seed/chemical company mergers threatens to reduce farmers’ seed choices. And extreme weather events linked to climate change continue to disrupt U.S. agricultural production.
Former Georgia Governor Perdue was the last of Trump’s cabinet selections. A veterinarian by training, Perdue is embedded in industrialized agriculture. He has run businesses selling fertilizer, grain and a broad array of agricultural exports. But nothing in his background indicates he has the vision and leadership to address the increasingly complex challenges facing farmers today.
Perdue is a political player. He served on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee, where the campaign’s talking points emphasized the need to “defend American agriculture against its critics”, fight the so-called Good Food movement, prevent states from dictating food and agriculture policy, and reduce regulations.
As Governor, Perdue was a champion of the contract poultry industry, named governor of the year by the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), and restricted local government control over crop management and animal husbandry. Like the President, Perdue has mocked concerns about climate change. And as Governor, he signed one of the nation’s toughest laws on undocumented immigrants.
The delay in Perdue’s confirmation hearing was largely due the White House, who for unknown reasons, delayed in getting the necessary paperwork to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Now that the time has come, here are some key questions Perdue should answer:
What will you propose to lift farm incomes and fix the broken Farm Bill? Simply calling for expanded exports to benefit global agribusiness is a longstanding failed profitability strategy for most farmers. What new policies will help lift all farm and rancher incomes, regardless of their size and market?
The U.S. agriculture economy depends on, and often exploits, immigrant labor. How can we ensure food system immigrant workers are not exploited and have a path to citizenship?
How will you improve competition in the agricultural sector to protect farmers? Three proposed mergers in the seed and chemical industry would put much of the world’s seed supply in the hands of just three companies (Dow-DuPont), (Monsanto-Bayer), (Syngenta-Chem-China).
How will the department help farmers adapt to climate change and reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions? Agribusiness and food companies are incorporating climate science into their business models. Will the USDA likewise do so?
Will you support the Farmer Fair Practice Rules issued by USDA in December to reduce deceptive and abusive grower contracts in the poultry industry? What will USDA do to prevent abusive and deceptive contracts if Congress votes to disapprove this rule?
How will USDA reduce and prevent the growing prevalence of super-weeds and insect resistance affecting millions of acres and farm profitability around the country? Superweeds and insect-resistance are proliferating with the multiple chemical applications required increasingly by genetically engineered crops.
How will you remedy the widely documented problems with USDA’s meat, poultry and egg inspection programs? The USDA has delegated inspection authority to company plant inspectors, while permitting increased production line speeds that make effective inspection impossible, according to whistleblowers.
What is your plan to reduce agricultural runoff into the nation’s waterways? The President has signed an executive order designed to eliminate the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule that would help protect our nation’s waterways. What is your WOTUS replacement plan to ensure rural communities have access to clean, potable water?
Senate agriculture committee members should demand that Governor Perdue answers these and related questions. If Perdue avoids these issues, it will be a sign that what President Lincoln called the “Peoples’ Department,” will be a “Corporate America First” department during the Trump administration.
Ben Lilliston is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, focusing on climate change and corporate influence in agriculture. Based in Minneapolis with offices in Washington, D.C. and Berlin, Germany, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy connects the dots of global justice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.
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