In contrast to some of Trump’s Cabinet picks, his choice for Agriculture Secretary, former two-term Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, comes with experience appropriate to the position. He has a strong agricultural background, a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and familiarity with management and controversy. He will bring a unique perspective to the table, one that reflects views on international trade and immigration that could temper and provide important nuance to policies pushed by the Trump White House.
For example, in Georgia he signed strict legislation against illegal immigration, yet he is aware of the value and dependence of the agriculture sector on immigrant labor, and has publicly expressed a less xenophobic view than some of the Trump rhetoric. As for trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is supported by many farmers as it could increase U.S. agriculture exports and annual farm income by billions of dollars. On the other hand, farmers are also concerned about unfair competition from nations with more lenient environmental and labor regulations than the United States. Perdue could play an important role in re-negotiating trade deals that level the playing field by demanding improved labor and environmental measures of our trading partners, and a reduction or elimination of tariffs on U.S. agriculture products.
Other challenges loom. The incoming Ag Secretary will be working with Congress as they formulate the 2018 Farm Bill, which funds the department’s diverse programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e. food stamps), a target for cuts among many Republicans. The Farm Bill also provides funding for conservation incentive programs that benefit farmers while protecting natural resources. During both Republican and Democratic administrations the Agriculture Department has supported research leading to more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides to protect food safety and waterways. The outgoing Ag Secretary, Tom Vilsack, established a nation-wide “soil health program” with guidelines for rebuilding degraded soils for improved crop yields and resilience to drought and flooding. The incoming Ag Secretary will find that at this point farmers and supporting organizations are taking the lead, such as the Soil Health Partnership, a collaboration among the National Corn Growers Association, Walmart, Monsanto, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and university researchers. And Perdue will be providing insight from the agriculture sector on renewable energy and biofuel crops, opportunities most farmers are interested in exploring if it can benefit their bottom line.
Of the many difficult issues Perdue will face is the controversial issue of climate change. While not all farmers are comfortable with the phrase or convinced about the causes, many have come to recognize that they are the first generation of farmers, ever, who cannot rely on historical weather patterns to tell them when to plant, what to plant, or how to grow it. Less predictable weather patterns call for new research and infrastructure that integrates weather station and satellite data, field monitoring and digital technology, and advanced analytics for decision support.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture responsibilities encompass the U.S. Forest Service and the entire food system, with significant implications for the economy, jobs, and the affordability, nutritional value and safety of the food we eat. Food accounts for a 12.6 percent share of the average American household’s expenditures, ranking higher than health care (8 percent). Only housing (33.3 percent) and transportation (17 percent) rank higher. Agriculture and agriculture-related industries contribute $985 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, and food manufacturing accounts for 14 percent of all U.S. manufacturing employees.
It remains unclear where Perdue will stand on the many responsibilities, challenges and opportunities of the vast agency he has been asked to lead. Given his background he is likely to be confirmed, but it will be important that the hearings seek to reveal where he stands on the many complex issues, and how influential he will be in providing a well-balanced, science-based viewpoint to the Trump administration.
David Wolfe is Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, and Fellow, Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.