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Daily News Blog

18
Apr

Report Documents the Undermining of Science and Industry Influence at USDA

(Beyond Pesticides, April 18, 2018) A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Betrayal at the USDA, concludes that a myriad of personnel and policy decisions by Trump administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in his first year, are harming the public. Enacted through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), these decisions have weakened public safety and health protections, ignored science, and advantaged agribusiness interests over those of the public, farmers, and rural communities.

Given the mission of USDA — to provide “leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management” — the U.S. population would understandably expect that the agency would make good on that mission. People might assume the agency would employ sound science in promoting innovative, sustainable agricultural practices, and in helping maintain a domestic food system that ensures a safe and healthful food supply, supports farmers’ success, and protects the natural resources on which both of those depend. UCS concludes that, in the Trump era, people would be wrong.

USDA has considerable, albeit not-always-obvious, impact on people’s everyday lives. As the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) notes, “The agency’s programs and policies help shape farmers’ decisions about what to grow and how to grow it; the cost, availability, and safety of the food we all eat; the quality of the nation’s soil and water resources; and the social and economic well-being of our communities — especially rural communities.” In addition, USDA has typically invested billions of dollars annually on agriculture and food research, representing significant support for the research science community and the discoveries that emerge from this work, as well as for a growing knowledge base to inform decision making and public policy.

Early concerns expressed by the science and advocacy sectors — about Mr. Perdue’s ethical lapses, coziness with big industry, and apparent interest in weakening evidence-based public protections — are bearing out. As he did as governor of Georgia for eight years, Secretary Perdue has made liberal use of industry contacts, former business associates, and Big Ag lobbyists as appointees to leadership position in government; skills, relevant experience and education, and ethics do not seem to be part of the vetting.

For example, to advise USDA on federal dietary guidelines, Mr. Perdue hired Kailee Tkacz, an ex-lobbyist for both corn refiners and snack (aka junk) food trade groups. He acquired an ethics waiver from the White House for the hire because she had lobbied Congress on related issues just three months earlier. UCS points out that Ms. Tkacz has no training in nutrition, science, or public health.

Additional ethics waivers, announced in March 2018, were issued by White House counsel Don McGahn for other trade group lobbyists to work for the USDA. One of those was for Maggie Lyons, former lobbyist for the National Grocers Association who was hired, as a senior advisor and chief of staff to the administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, to advise Secretary Perdue and USDA officials on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program — policies on which she had lobbied just months earlier. Ms. Lyons, likewise, has no background in science or nutrition, but did study “corporate communications” in college.

Secretary Perdue also and infamously tried to appoint Sam Clovis, the Trump campaign national co-chair, and talk radio host, to be USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. Unencumbered by any of the scientific experience or training required by law for the position — never mind his predilection for racist and offensive diatribe, and for conspiracy theories — Mr. Clovis eventually, after vigorous public outcry, withdrew his name from nomination for the position. Yet, he is still at USDA as a senior advisor.

The Trump administration certainly set the stage for such recklessness and disregard for established norms and common sense. On Inauguration Day itself, the transition team had somehow vetted and sent to USDA headquarters 30+ new hires. Politico’s Jenny Hopkinson later reported, “Into USDA jobs, some of which paid nearly $80,000 a year, the Trump team had inserted a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company, with skills like ‘pleasant demeanor’ listed on their résumés. ‘In many cases [the new appointees] demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture.’ . . . What these people had in common, she pointed out, was loyalty to Donald Trump.”

Part of USDA’s responsibility is to use scientific evidence to maintain the safety of the food system, protect workers in the sector, improve children’s nutrition, and tackle food insecurity. In seeming contravention of those charges stand some of Mr. Perdue’s policy decisions. USDA attacked the science used by the World Health Organization in its guidelines on antibiotic overuse in livestock. In March 2018, it withdrew organic animal welfare regulations establishing standards and metrics for the health and welfare of organic livestock and poultry — another in a series of actions that compromise organic integrity in service to the needs of large organic producers. USDA also joined in with agribusiness interests, in the run-up to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to reverse the Obama-era ban on the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, to argue against the ban. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established nutrition standards for school meals that helped arrest the spiking rate of childhood obesity; Mr. Perdue’s USDA rolled back those standards to allow fewer whole grains, more sodium, and milk with added sugar.

Secretary Perdue’s plans to reorganize USDA are further testament to his attitudes toward science, agribusiness, and the mission of the agency. In eliminating the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration and withering some of its rules, he has made it easier for large meat processors to exploit small livestock and poultry farmers. Further, he supported the administration’s budget proposal for 2019, which would slice USDA funding by 25% and kneecap programs, such as the Economic Research Service and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, that use science to help farmers and rural communities. Mr. Perdue also supported the recent “tax bill,” in spite of the fact that its provisions are projected primarily to help the top 1% of farmers and decrease agricultural productivity.

Beyond Pesticides has identified the Trump administration’s pattern of sidelining science and prioritizing industrial interest in public policy and regulation across agencies; samples of that coverage: The Threat to Scientific Integrity at EPA, Trump Administration Bows to Chemical Industry, Increasing Pressure for Local Action, Assault on Science, and Where Has All the EPA Enforcement Gone? UCS also published a 2017 report on this pattern, Sidelining Science Since Day One.

The new UCS report, Betrayal at the USDA, sets out recommendations that include increased Congressional oversight of the USDA reorganization plan, hiring of a chief scientist with real scientific qualifications, creation of scientific evidence–based dietary guidelines, full funding for USDA’s research activities, and protection of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) policies based on evidence rather than ideology. Beyond Pesticides agrees, and continues to insist that science — and faithfulness to the public interest — have a critical and central role in informing public policy and governance, particularly in agencies such as USDA, EPA, HHS (Department of Health and Human Services), DOI (Department of the Interior), DOE (Department of Energy), FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), among others.

Members of the public can stay current on important, related issues with our Daily News Blog and Pesticides and You journal; mobilize to support organizations, such as Beyond Pesticides, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and many others, that advocate for science-sound solutions, ethics, and transparency in governance; and contact members of Congress to insist that the federal government work for the public interest.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/unhealthy-food-policy/betrayal-usda-2018#.Ws4mddPwZ0s

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