What does the new administration mean for agriculture and food? Just over a month into it, we mostly have educated speculation, and the situation might best be described as “complicated.” This article will provide some brief insights into a range of the issues that are already under discussion.
FOOD SAFETY MODERNIZATION ACT (FSMA)
One of the most promising areas for our farmers under the new administration involves the topic of FSMA. These expensive, burdensome new regulations went into effect this year. And even with the exemptions for small, direct-marketing businesses that WAPF helped win in the statute, many good farmers, artisan food producers and food hubs will face significant problems.
The administration’s strong anti-regulation rhetoric would certainly support a rollback of these regulations. And the congressional “Freedom Caucus” listed several of the FSMA regulations on their list of recommended rules to repeal entirely.
Most likely, we will not see a complete FSMA repeal, however, because Big Agribusiness and Big Food actually like much of this act; they supported it in Congress because it would provide a single federal standard, instead of the multiple private programs that sprang up in the wake of highly publicized large outbreaks. The more likely outcome is a targeted rollback of certain provisions (and we will have to be vigilant to ensure that the Tester-Hagan exemption doesn’t get rolled back in the process!).
NEW FDA LEADERSHIP
Encouragingly, Tom Price, who has been confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services, voted against FSMA in Congress (although on the downside he also voted against country-of-origin labeling). Secretary Price, however, is expected to focus his attention and energies on the health care debates, not food.
President Trump’s selection for FDA commissioner, who will have more direct control over food issues, has not yet been named. The names that have been floated so far have ties to the world of venture capital, which in turn is closely tied to the development of new pharmaceutical drugs. There’s a strong push from that sector to stop requiring companies to prove the efficacy of drugs prior to allowing them on the market. Many fear that this could mean the marketing of ineffective drugs, which will still presumably carry plenty of detrimental side effects. At the same time, it might open the door for more innovative alternative therapies, but only if the costs of FDA approval are drastically reduced in the process. On the food side, we know essentially nothing about the views of these individuals.
USDA MEAT PROCESSING & SLAUGHTERHOUSES
One of USDA’s primary areas of responsibility is over slaughterhouses, which is also one of the biggest problem areas for small farmers. The burdensome federal regulations for slaughterhouses are imposed even on those who are only selling meat directly to local consumers because state-inspected slaughterhouses must meet the federal standards. With the new administration’s focus on reducing regulatory burdens, we have a good opportunity to push for reforms on this issue.
Many WAPF members are already aware of the PRIME Act, introduced last session in Congress. This bill by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) would allow states to set their own standards for the sale of meat directly to consumers from what are known as “custom slaughterhouses” —processing plants that do not have to comply with the federal standards. While the bill has not yet been re-introduced, it is expected to be; and if it garners support from the administration, then it is more likely to be incorporated into next year’s farm bill.
There are also steps the USDA could take without any congressional action that would reduce the burdens on small and mid-scale processors. The Local Foods Association has a detailed proposal of common-sense changes to how the agency implements the current law. Some of them are as simple as allowing flexibility in the hours that the slaughterhouse operates, so that they are not charged overtime if they need the inspector to stay longer than eight hours because the animals couldn’t be rushed. If the administration wants, it could help reduce significant expense and difficulty for slaughterhouses by adopting such reforms immediately, with no need for congressional action.
The DARK Act, passed last year by Congress, pre-empted any state regulation of GMO labeling. In its place, it directed USDA to develop federal standards for labeling. The law was deeply flawed. For instance, it excludes many new types of GMOs from the labeling requirement and allows for QR codes as labels to hide information from consumers. The future of even this very inadequate regulation is now unclear, however, due to President Trump’s executive order directing all agencies to repeal two existing regulations for every new regulation they issue.
Trump’s executive order not only calls for eliminating two existing regulations for every new one, it also requires that any “incremental cost” of the new regulation must be offset by the elimination of costs from the repealed existing regulations. That may sound good, but there’s a lot of confusion: does it involve looking at just the costs, or are they offset by the alleged benefits of the regulations? For most regulations, the agencies claim that the benefits outweigh the costs; the exception is for regulations that have a diffuse effect or a long-term impact that is too difficult to quantify, such as country-of-origin labeling or the GIPSA rules discussed below.
Does this “one in, two out” order apply when an agency is specifically directed by statute to take action? At least one agribusiness group has already suggested that the GMO rule, if it issues at all, should be offset by the repeal of both the GIPSA rule and the organic livestock welfare standards rules discussed next.
CORPORATE CONTROL AND GIPSA
In 1921, when corporate control and trust busting was in the spotlight, Congress passed the Packers and Stockyards Act to address unfair market concentration in the livestock industry. Yet USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) never issued rules to implement the act. In the absence of USDA rules, some courts have ruled that a farmer has to prove that the company’s actions harmed the entire industry, not just him, when alleging that there have been “unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practices” and “undue or unreasonable preferences or advantages.” In essence, it’s like requiring someone to prove that the entire neighborhood has suffered if someone cheats them.
After a long, hard-fought battle by family farm and consumer advocates, Congress directed USDA to issue rules to properly implement these statutory protections in the 2008 Farm Bill. Another long, hard battle followed to get the rules actually written and adopted. Three rules were finally published at the very end of the Obama administration. The rules on unfair practices and undue preferences were published as proposed rules, to be finalized after a comment period. The third rule, arguably the most important, was issued as an “interim final rule,” which meant that it was supposed to go into effect immediately; this rule prevents retaliation by the companies against farmers who spoke up about the abuses, creating some basic and badly-needed whistleblower protections in this area. All three of the GIPSA rules have been halted for now by President Trump’s regulatory freeze. The “one in, two out” requirement, combined with the vehement opposition from corporate agribusiness, makes it a very long shot that the proposed regulations will ever actually be finalized, and places the whistleblower rule at high risk for being repealed.
Why should farmers and consumers who are dedicated to the direct farm-to-consumer movement care? After all, none of our farmers is dealing with these companies. But this is still a vital issue for the long-term future of our food—because the larger and more powerful these companies grow, and the more they are allowed to run rough shod over the farmers they deal with, the more political power they gain and the fewer farmers are left to raise food.
ORGANIC LIVESTOCK WELFARE STANDARDS
In December, USDA issued final standards for humane animal treatment by certified organic producers, covering such things as livestock handling and the amount of outdoor space that must be provided for organic poultry. The rules were roundly criticized by both sides. “Industry organic” groups argue that the organic standards shouldn’t include any consideration of animal welfare, while the organic watchdog group Cornucopia argued that the standards did not go far enough. Regardless, the rule is on hold for now pending further review by the Trump administration, and may very well be rescinded, perhaps as one of the repeals to allow for the weak GMO labeling regulation under the DARK Act.
NEW SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE
President Trump’s pick for the new secretary of agriculture is Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011. He grew up on a farm and earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine. While Perdue has not yet been confirmed, he will almost certainly be.
There are several reasons for concern. While governor of Georgia, Perdue signed a law that blocks local governments from regulating crop production or animal husbandry. He also took over three hundred thousand dollars in contributions from Monsanto and other agribusinesses for his campaigns. The GMO lobby group Biotechnology Innovation Organization even named him its 2009 Governor of the Year. The company he started after his term as governor is a global food trade corporation, which poses a conflict of interest since, as secretary of agriculture, Perdue will be involved in various regulations governing food imports and exports. At the same time, as with this administration in general, Perdue generally favors less regulation. Depending how this deregulatory approach is implemented, it could provide benefits for small farmers as well.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
Last, although we don’t often think about the Department of Justice when discussing food, the mergers of agribusiness giants make it a vital actor in the upcoming year. American genetic engineering and pesticide giant Monsanto and German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer are in the middle of a sixty-six-billion-dollar merger. The resulting company would own over a quarter of the seed market and the global pesticide market.
Two other mega-mergers are also pending: Dow Chemical with DuPont, and Syngenta with ChemChina. Even before the mergers began, these seed and agrochemical companies held inordinate market power, with Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta collectively controlling more than half of the global seed market.
Each of the mergers individually would negatively affect small farmers, organic farmers, farmworkers and consumers. Taken together the implications are scary. It is predicted that if all three deals were to close, the three resulting companies would control nearly 70 percent of the world’s pesticide market, more than 61 percent of commercial seed sales, and 80 percent of the U.S. corn-seed market.
Such a heavily consolidated seed and agricultural input industry makes it easier for collusion that would reduce options for farmers and raise their costs—and ultimately pass those costs on to consumers. The massive corporations would have enough economic and political power to ignore the growing consumer and farmer demand for truly sustainable, non-toxic options, meaning even less choice in the marketplaces for seeds, inputs and foods.
Hundreds of organizations have urged the Department of Justice to conduct a thorough investigation to determine the impacts of these takeovers and prevent them from going forward.
Disturbingly, then President-elect Trump met with the CEOs of Bayer and Monsanto at Trump Tower in January. The companies committed to eight billion dollars in new research and development, along with three thousand new jobs and a commitment to keep nine thousand other jobs in the United States, if the merger goes through. Trump then issued a statement making it sound as though the entire deal was settled—with no mention of the Department of Justice or any antitrust concerns.
But there is opposition within Congress. Leading the charge on Capitol Hill is Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has pushed regulators to block the deal. In terms of the long-term structure of our agricultural and food system, the issue of these mergers may be the single most important one in the coming year.
Ultimately, while the president clearly has a great deal of power, the key to long-term change remains the same regardless of who is in office: remaining involved, vocal, and organized.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2017.