In the midst of a global pandemic, a rushed Supreme Court confirmation, and a reckoning with racial justice, food and farming have been on the back burner in the 2020 presidential election.
And yet, many of the policies that determine how we produce and access food are inextricably linked to the issues that are in the spotlight. COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on farm and meatpacking workers, for example, and its effects on the economy have increased food insecurity, especially in communities of color, to unprecedented levels.
Although Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue described the Trump administration’s efforts as “fighting for our farmers, ranchers, and rural America” in his recent Fox News op-ed (an effort that appears to be a violation the Hatch Act), one thing is clear: President Trump’s agenda, focused primarily around deregulation and increasing aid to commodity farmers while cutting food aid to needy families, will have long-lasting implications.
With Election Day upon us, Civil Eats reviewed the most important actions the Trump administration has taken on food and farming over the past four years. No matter who wins the presidency, most of these issues will be on the agenda for the next four years.
The Ag Economy
Farmers—especially commodity farmers and large agribusiness companies—overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Since then, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has been one of the president’s most vocal advocates, so much so that he was recently fined for violating the Hatch Act, after urging attendees at a government event to vote for Trump.
But soon after his election, Trump started a trade war with China and other countries. In retaliation, many of those countries placed tariffs on U.S. agricultural products. Most of the tariffs have since been lifted, but not before they significantly decreased profits for farmers. For example, between 2017 and 2018, U.S. exports of agricultural products to China decreased by 63 percent, from $15.8 billion to $5.9 billion. In 2019, the agricultural sector had record high levels of debt and the most bankruptcies since 2011.
To offset the effects of the tariffs, in 2018, USDA began distributing cash payments through the Commodity Credit Corporation at unprecedented levels, with no appropriations or oversight from Congress. In 2020, as the pandemic hit the farm economy, it added another source of government payments via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Overall, Trump’s USDA has handed out more government dollars to farmers than any administration prior. In both 2019 and 2020, more than 40 percent of farm incomes came from federal assistance—the only thing keeping farm incomes afloat.
Those payments have been controversial because they have almost exclusively benefited the largest farms and agriculture companies. Two-thirds of the trade aid payments went to agriculture producers in the top 10 percent, including corporations, such as the $67 million paid to JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian-owned meatpacking giant. Small farms, especially diversified operations and those run by socially disadvantaged Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, have largely been unable to access CFAP assistance.
Meanwhile, throughout Trump’s time in office, family dairy farms have continued to go out of business at a fast clip, with Wisconsin alone losing 500 in 2017, nearly 700 in 2018, and over 800 in 2019. During a visit to Wisconsin last fall, agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue told dairy farmers, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”
Ethanol is also an important economic issue for commodity farmers. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action in 2019 to allow a higher ethanol blend of gasoline to be sold around the country, an action that would increase demand for corn-derived ethanol, the agency then angered farmers and others in the industry by issuing an unprecedented number of waivers to oil companies, allowing them to skirt the ethanol mandate. Soon after, the industry took a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, the EPA reversed course on the waivers, but it is postponing a larger decision on blending until after the election.
Finally, President Trump has moved forward initiatives to open up federal waters to fish farming—most significantly with an executive order—in the name of stimulating the American economy.
The Meat Industry
The Trump administration has aligned itself with and supported the meatpacking industry in a way that has largely benefited corporations over farmers.
Shortly after taking office, the administration dissolved the independent office of Grain, Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), the USDA agency charged with regulating anticompetitive and unfair practices in the livestock, poultry, meat, grain, and oilseed industries. It also overturned the agency’s associated rules, which were intended to give contract farmers in industries like poultry and pork more power and protection, and were opposed by meat companies.
In January of 2020, the USDA proposed a new rule addressing one aspect of GIPSA called undue preference, a protection intended to prevent companies from retaliating against growers they’re unhappy with and pitting growers against each other. But some advocates say that because of the way the rule is written, it will do little to improve the industry’s treatment of contract farmers.
Early in the administration, the USDA also overturned a set of rules intended to bring animal welfare standards in certified organic operations in line with consumer expectations. The rule had widespread support throughout the organic industry, except among a few of the largest companies producing organic food on an industrial scale.
Meanwhile, ranchers have lobbied the administration to fix inaccurate labeling to allow them to fairly compete with imported meat, and the USDA indicated it would take action on one of those issues. However, the agency has not yet moved forward, and many advocacy groups say the proposed action is too weak to benefit ranchers.
Most notably, since the pandemic began, Trump has used the Defense Production Act to allow meat companies to compel their workers to return to work, despite worsening COVID-19 outbreaks. A ProPublica investigation later found that the North American Meat Institute, which represents large companies including Tyson and Cargill, wrote a draft of the order.
However, President Trump has spoken out on the consolidation in the meat industry. In May, he said he urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to look into companies’ practices in light of the fact that meat prices were rising as the prices farmers were being paid dropped. And the DOJ under Trump has continued to investigate price fixing in the poultry industry; as of October, it had indicted 10 executives for conspiring to fix prices.
Food and Farm Labor
Within just the first few months of the administration, it became clear that Trump’s approach to immigration would impact the 8 million undocumented food workers in the U.S.
Efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which impacts many in the food and farm industries, began in 2017, as did Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) crackdowns on farms and factories. ICE raids intensified throughout 2018 and 2019 across the country, including in New York, Minnesota, and California. At the outset, the food world showed resistance; immigration audits led to protests at food companies such as New York’s Tomcat Bakery, and restaurants everywhere designated themselves as sanctuaries.
Then, in 2019, Trump’s USDA proposed an overhaul of the controversial H-2A guestworker program. The changes would make the program more flexible for farmers in various ways, while shifting some of the costs of the program onto workers and changing the way wages are calculated so that most workers would be paid less. In April, the White House chief of staff said he was working with Secretary Perdue to figure out how to lower guestworker wages on farms, and the USDA recently tried to cancel a quarterly survey used to calculate guestworker wages. That effort was halted by a federal judge last week and USDA was ordered to continue collecting farmworker wage data.
In 2020, after the order to send workers back into meatpacking plants, federal agencies under Trump largely took a hands-off approach to protecting workers. According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, more than 48,000 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 200 have died to date.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declined to create an enforceable safety standard plants would have to follow, despite urging from lawmakers and labor groups. Instead, OSHA collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue voluntary guidance on keeping meatpacking workers safe, and conducted very few inspections in response to worker complaints, even as cases and deaths skyrocketed in the industry.
In September, OSHA issued its first two fines, totaling under $30,000, against JBS USA and Smithfield Foods, both multi-billion dollar companies. A Washington Post investigation found the CDC weakened language in a report sent to Smithfield on what they should do to protect workers at the same South Dakota plant that was later fined for safety violations.
OSHA and the CDC also issued voluntary guidelines for farms to protect workers from contracting the coronavirus and declined to enforce safety regulations, despite many outbreaks on farms around the country. In response, several states created their own enforceable standards.
Experts have found that wage increases among low-income workers that have occurred since Trump has been in office are largely attributable to states raising minimum wages.
Federal agencies under Trump have slowed down food safety enforcement across the board. In the first two-and-a-half years of the administration, the number of warning letters sent by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to companies dropped by about a third compared to the previous administration. Warning letters are one key tool used to prevent tainted items from entering the food supply. The number of letters sent from the FDA’s Food Safety & Applied Nutrition division dropped 37 percent.
In 2017, the FDA denied a petition filed by environmental groups to ban perchlorate, a chemical that can be dangerous for children and developing fetuses, in food packaging, and it dismissed concerns from outside scientists about levels of toxic chemicals known as PFAS in food.
In early 2020, industry groups celebrated when the administration installed Mindy Brashears as the top food safety official. Brashears’ past research was funded by the National Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Board, and she holds several patents related to food contamination, which watchdog groups say means she could profit off of her position.
During the pandemic, the FDA suspended routine inspections of both foreign and domestic food processing facilities, dairy farms, and animal feed processors. Meanwhile, the USDA indicated it would move to permanently raise poultry line-speed limits, a controversial move that poses potential dangers for workers as well as food-safety hazards. The USDA is also finalizing a rule that will privatize meat inspections for swine.
Agriculture and the Environment
President Trump regularly casts doubts on the seriousness of the climate crisis and in 2019 he presided over a policy to strip the words “climate change” from the vocabulary of various agencies, including those that oversee and regulate farming, including the EPA and the USDA.
However, in 2020, Secretary Perdue released an Agriculture Innovation Agenda that includes a benchmark to “enhance carbon sequestration through soil health and forestry, leverage the agricultural sector’s renewable energy benefits for the economy, and capitalize on innovative technologies and practices to achieve a net reduction of the agricultural sector’s current carbon footprint by 2050 without regulatory overreach.” The secretary and his team notably avoided the use of the terms “climate change” and “climate crisis” in the plan and in public, and details on how Trump’s USDA would meet those goals are scarce.
Beyond climate, the Trump administration has also weakened various other environmental protections in the name of reducing onerous regulations on farmers. The EPA rescinded a rule that clarified which waters were included in Clean Water Act protections in 2017, stopped requiring CAFOs to report emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in 2019, and rolled back the National Environmental Policy Act, which required the government to weigh environmental and community impacts of construction projects across industries, in 2020.
Trump’s actions on agricultural chemicals and genetically modified crops have charted a similar path, and the New York Times has documented how pesticide industry executives have directly influenced the USDA.
In 2017, the EPA reversed an Obama-era ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide the agency previously determined was linked to brain damage in children. After battling lawsuits, the agency reaffirmed the decision in 2019 and in 2020, it released a new assessment of the pesticide that excluded several studies and found the science on its dangers “remains unresolved.” On a similar timeline, the agency weakened safeguards for atrazine, an herbicide that is banned in Europe due to well-documented effects on aquatic wildlife and links to birth defects and cancer in humans, and then reapproved its use, with some restrictions to prevent drift.
In 2019, the agency also proposed changing a rule that protects workers and bystanders from pesticide poisoning, while Trump signed an executive order directing the USDA, FDA, and EPA to make it easier for companies to get GMO crops and other agricultural biotechnology approved.
Most controversially, in October, the EPA re-authorized the use of dicamba-based weedkillers for five years. That decision came after a court found EPA had understated the herbicide’s risks leading to the destruction of millions of acres of crops, and ordered farmers to stop using it.
During a recent episode of his podcast, Secretary Perdue dismissed Americans who worry about the effects of pesticides as having an irrational fear of technology and agreed with his guest who said farmers would not be able to meet future production challenges by “sprinkling organic fairy dust over crops.”
Even so, organic proponents praised Perdue’s USDA in August 2020 when the agency advanced rulemaking to combat fraud in the organic industry. Almost simultaneously, it angered the industry by reducing certification cost-share payments that help farmers manage the cost of switching to organic systems.
Food Access and School Meals
Early in the administration, Trump’s USDA began unraveling the improved nutrition standards that were put in place for school meals as a result of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFK), championed by Michelle Obama. Perdue’s first big rule change, initiated in 2018, gave schools more time to reduce sodium, allowed for the reintroduction of flavored milks, and cut the whole grain requirement in half. However, a federal judge ruled that the agency’s changes violated the law.
The USDA then proposed changing the nutrition standards in a variety of additional, different ways. Those include loosening the mandate around vegetable variety in lunches and reducing the amount of fruit required at breakfast. Many school nutrition groups opposed the changes, although the School Nutrition Association—a professional organization that represents cafeteria workers nationally—supported the rollbacks.
Meanwhile, despite a loosening of the purse strings to bail out farmers, the Trump administration has largely tightened them for low-income families facing food insecurity. His budgets have repeatedly proposed cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) and restricting eligibility for SNAP benefits in new ways. One of his most controversial proposals, a rule that would have kicked 700,000 unemployed people off benefits, was recently struck down by a federal judge. Two additional rules that would further restrict eligibility are still pending. One study estimated if all three changes were implemented, 3.7 million people would be removed from the program.
During the pandemic, however, the USDA has implemented several programs designed to get emergency food relief to students and families. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act directed many of the programs, such as allowing states to issue emergency SNAP benefit allotments (although the administration has been fighting in federal court to block states from distributing those benefits to the lowest-income families) and Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), for low-income children who depend on school meals.
Between May and October, the USDA says it has paid for the distribution of more than 100 million Farmers to Families Food Boxes, but the program has also been cited for awarding contracts to vendors with no agricultural or distribution experience, high costs, and more recently, shifting contracts to big distributors while cutting farmers with crops ready to harvest out of the program. Letters from President Trump included in the third round of box distributions are also being questioned as a possible Hatch Act violation.
The most extensive efforts have been around continuing meal programs at shuttered schools. To allow schools to feed children at home, the USDA issued a series of waivers granting flexibility to food service directors forced to create new distribution systems. Most consequentially, the agency granted and then extended a waiver that will allow schools to serve meals to all students free of charge through the end of the 2020–2021 school year. However, Perdue has resisted calls for universal school meals as a long-term policy, and most school meal programs are now struggling to stay financially viable.
Going forward, it could be much more difficult to track the impact of Trump’s policies because his administration has also gutted the Economic Research Service, an agency tasked with publishing objective research on farming, food consumption, and the environment. The dozens of researchers who left took with them decades of expertise on food, farming, climate, nutrition, and the ways in which these issues are intertwined; as of mid-August, almost half of the agency’s positions remained open.
Regardless of what happens this election, Americans will most certainly experience the effects of this period under the Trump administration for decades to come as they continue to work to feed their families and protect their communities from environmental degradation.