Food and Ag Policy under Trump: Farmers, Workers, and Eaters Have Plenty to Fight For

By Beth Spitler

Many Americans think that food and agriculture policy has no role in their lives. You eat food, but you’re not a farmer (only two percent of Americans are) and your food choices are so distantly related to agriculture policy coming out of Washington that it’s the least of your policy concerns these days. Fair enough. Fighting to protect the safety and civil liberties of racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women broadly will keep progressive Americans very busy under the Trump administration. There are, however some good reasons to pay attention to agriculture and food policy in the years to come.

For one thing, food system jobs account for more than 10% of the U.S. labor market, employing more minimum-wage workers than any other sector. Agriculture has now overtaken deforestation and land use change (much of which is done for the purpose of soy and livestock production) as a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, so changing American agricultural production methods may be a lynchpin in the climate movement. Furthermore, as we see time and again within our country, the negative health and environmental impacts of the American diet are disproportionately felt by low-income people of color.

Anticipating Trump’s Impact

So what can we expect from this wholly unpredictable billionaire politician? Since the president has told us next to nothing about his policy priorities in the agriculture arena, we can tell far more from the appointees he’s chosen than from his explicit policy positions. Food and ag policy watchers were kept guessing for months on Trump’s pick for ag secretary, contemplating rumors including Idaho governor Butch Otter, North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, former California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado and Indiana agribusiness CEO Kip Tom.

Trump’s choice, the last cabinet position to be announced the day before his swearing in, is Sonny Perdue, Confederacy buff and a former veterinarian who ran a fertilizer and grain business before serving as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He’s been running a global agribusiness trading company since leaving office and his nomination confirmed that, whatever their background, Trump’s choice to run the Department of Agriculture would be pro-big ag (and, for the first time since President Reagan, the cabinet will not include a Latino). There are a number of troubling things about this pick to head the Department of Ag, a sprawling agency with an annual budget of $155 billion, chief among them being his anti-immigration stance. Along with Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder—currently the CEO of CKE restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s—who is a staunch opponent of raising the minimum wage, Trump nominees may spell disaster for food system workers, especially the 14.4 million that work in the restaurant industry and 1 million hired farmworkers growing the nation’s food.

Other cabinet picks promise to pave the way for further consolidation by agribusiness multinationals (already just four companies together control 65 percent of pork slaughter, 84 percent of cattle slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter). Family farmers and food sovereignty proponents lobbied the Department of Justice during the last months of the Obama presidency to put an end to the proposed merger of six of the world’s largest multinational agrichemical and seed companies. The proposed deals place more than 80% of U.S. corn-seed sales and 70% of the global pesticide market under just three companies, sparking concerns about market collusion that will impact farmers already struggling under depressed commodity prices, and fears of higher global food prices. In addition, food producers and eaters around the world should be extremely concerned about the significant threat to global food security that will come with the further consolidation and commodification of the world’s seed diversity.

We also know that Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, tapped to head the EPA, is fiercely anti-regulation. With the backing of Trump’s two-for-one executive order, which requires the repeal of two regulations for every new one put in place, he is expected to take aim at clean air and water rules that apply to feedlots. The much-maligned Waters of the United States rule, which expanded the federal government’s authority to protect waterways under the Clean Water Act, will likely be first on the chopping block. Trump’s proposed ambassador to China, Iowa governor Terry Branstad, has been promoting trade between Iowa’s massive hog and soybean industries and China since the 1980s. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has been hostile towards Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for years, and the supposed Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, has derided the minimum wage increases that food system workers desperately need.

Eye on the Farm Bill

Perhaps the most important piece of legislation that food policy watchers will be eyeing in the next year and a half is the Farm Bill, due for renewal in 2018. The massive omnibus bill, passed every five years, has an enormous impact on the type of farming that our government supports, and determines its investment in conservation programs and rural development, as well as most of the nation’s nutrition funding. Sustainable farming proponents are concerned that with Republican control of Congress, the progress that has been made in recent years to support beginning farmers and sustainable farming methods will be rolled back.

Furthermore, the ongoing threat that SNAP will be split from the Farm Bill seems unlikely, but isn’t outside the realm of possibility given the extreme policies already manifesting since Trump took office on January 20th. Doing so would make it easier for Conservatives to do away with the SNAP program, which currently serves 44 million Americans, since its survival has ostensibly been helped by its symbiosis with Farm Bill provisions that Conservatives like. While some anti-hunger advocates rightfully argue that SNAP doesn’t provide a long-term solution to hunger and benefits the corporations that administer the program or sell to SNAP recipients, having an emergency food assistance program in the midst of threats to the Affordable Care Act, immigration rights, the minimum wage and public education, is vital to the survival of low income communities.

Hope for Local Victories

Although food justice activists, along with a majority of Americans, are feeling significant fear and uncertainty about the nation’s future, one area of great optimism is continued food justice activism and victories at the local level. In the 2016 election, while national and statewide elections turned more of the country red, cities approved soda taxes and minimum wage hikes. The nationwide battle to protect civil liberties and halt climate change is vital, and local campaigns in states like California will likely be where we continue to innovate, setting the tone for progress on climate change around the world.

While rolling back the progress we’ve made in recent years towards more sustainable agriculture is disturbing, protecting the human rights of all Americans is the food movement’s most pressing concern under the Trump administration. Millions of Americans work in the food industry on farms, in processing plants, at grocery stores, and in restaurants. Many are immigrants, some of which are undocumented. Protecting the rights of those workers is central to seeking justice and sustainability in the food system. Resisting Trump’s policies to deport immigrants, keep the federal minimum wage at its anemic $7.25, and gut the social services that low-wage workers rely on are all pressing food movement issues that food justice activists are already mobilizing around. On January 30th, 105 food and farm groups delivered a letter to Congress outlining why Labor nominee Puzder would be a “dangerous” pick. And every eater in the country can take part in the Sanctuary Restaurant project to protect our undocumented restaurant workers. Food and farming policy activists, like the rest of America, are ready to RESIST.

Beth Spitler is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to Goldman, she worked with pasture-based livestock producers and sustainable farmers throughout the Western U.S.