Even Without an Agriculture Secretary, Trump’s Cabinet Says Plenty about Food and Water Plans

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Even Without an Agriculture Secretary, Trump’s Cabinet Says Plenty about Food and Water Plans

"Beef is back in Trump's America," writes Karen Perry Stillerman. (Photo: USDA/flickr/cc)

It’s official. This week’s Veterans Affairs nomination leaves the Trump administration’s Secretary of Agriculture position as the last cabinet slot to be filled. With his inauguration just 7 days away, the president-elect still hasn’t announced his pick for this vital position that touches every American’s life at least three times a day.

But while we wait (and wait, and wait) to see who will run the department that shapes our nation’s food and farm system, it may be instructive to take a look at what some of his other personnel choices say about his intentions in this realm. And particularly, what the Trump team could mean for two of our most basic human needs—food and water.

First, food. On the whole, today’s US agriculture system is skewed to production of commodity crops—chiefly corn and soybeans—the bulk of which become biofuel components, livestock feed, and processed food ingredients. That said, over the last 8 years we’ve seen increased emphasis, from the White House and the USDA, on healthy eating, local food systems, and the like.

But things seem about to change, and how. The president-elect himself reportedly lives on fast food and well-done steaks. And even without an agriculture secretary nomination, Trump’s other appointees to date seem to indicate that unhealthy food and industrial farming are back in force.

Corn is king and beef is back in Trump’s America

It’s hard to believe at a time when US corn production is at an all-time high, but with Trump’s team we might actually get more of this commodity we already have too much of.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association hailed Governor Terry Branstad’s selection last month as ambassador to China, a hire seen as a boon to that state’s corn-heavy farm sector. What does diplomacy in the Far East have to do with corn farmers in Iowa, you ask? China is already a major buyer of US farm commodities such as Iowa corn and pork, and Branstad is expected to press his “old friend” President Xi to ensure that continues. (Not to be left out, the American Soybean Association sounded happy about the Branstad pick as well.)

The ambassador-in-waiting is already plugging corn domestically, telling Iowa Public Radio and the state’s corn farmers that Trump’s chosen EPA head will support the ethanol industry they feed. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, you may have heard, is Trump’s highly controversial pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (see why this is laughably unacceptable herehere, and here). Pruitt is an oil guy, and on Oklahoma’s behalf he has fought the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which boosts the ethanol industry by mandating a level of blending with gasoline. But Branstad and both of Iowa’s Senators say King Corn needn’t worry.

Meanwhile, Pruitt has endeared himself to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the chief lobby group for Big Ag, with his rabidly anti-regulatory stance. The Farm Bureau cheered Pruitt’s appointment, describing it as “welcome news to America’s farmers and ranchers – in fact, to all who are threatened by EPA’s regulatory overreach.”

Read: agribusiness won’t have to deal with pesky environmental regulations under Pruitt.

Branstad’s and Pruitt’s nominations are also gifts to the meat industry, given their allegiances to the Iowa pork industry and Oklahoma beef industry respectively, as Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones explained last month.

Throw in hamburger exec Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary and the interests of industrialized meat and its fast-food purveyors will be well represented in cabinet meetings. (See more reasons to be worried about Puzder here and here.)

A promise of “crystal clear water”

With the food landscape being reshaped more to Trump’s liking, let’s look briefly at water. During the campaign, candidate Trump said that as president he would ensure the country has “absolutely crystal clear and clean water.” (It’s campaign promise #194 on this list.)

I’m glad he recognizes that clean water is a critical resource and something Americans want. But will we get it?

Probably not if it’s up to Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has sued the EPA over a slew of clean air efforts, including its climate, mercury, haze, and ozone rules, but he has also been vehement in his opposition to the agency’s efforts to protect the nation’s waters from pollution. In particular, he wants to kill the Obama EPA’s Clean Water Rule (also known as the “Waters of the US,” or WOTUS, regulation), which expanded the definition of waterways the federal government has the authority to protect under the Clean Water Act. The manufacturing and fossil fuel industries are major backers of the effort to kill the WOTUS rule, and Big Ag (in the form of the Farm Bureau) has joined them.

Is Trump’s USDA pick our last best hope for healthy food and clean water?

This brings us back to the long-delayed USDA nomination. Since the election, we’ve seen a parade of agriculture secretary hopefuls march in and out of Trump Tower. The process has frustrated farmers and confounded other observers (including the current USDA chief). It’s clear that the new USDA head, whoever he or she turns out to be, won’t be confirmed by the Senate until after the inauguration.

Until the president-elect makes an official announcement, it’s impossible to know where he’s going with this important position. And it is important. The US Department of Agriculture is a sprawling bureaucracy made up of 29 agencies and offices, nearly 100,000 employees, and a budget of $155 billion in FY17. Its vision statement:

[T]o provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.

The emphasis is mine, to highlight that the department is supposed to be looking out for the economic well-being of farmers and their communities, the health and nutrition of all Americans, and the critical natural resources—including water—that we all depend upon.

Let’s hope that whoever takes the helm at the USDA intends to do just that—even if Trump’s other cabinet picks have given us little reason for optimism.

Now, back to waiting…

Karen Stillerman

Karen Stillerman is deputy director and sr. analyst in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. 

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