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Big Battles Over Farm And Food Policies May Be Brewing As Trump Era Begins

Dec 28, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 2:30 pm

At first glance, food policy seems to be an afterthought in the Trump administration. The campaign saw few debates about food or farming. And the president-elect hasn't yet nominated someone to head the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration.

But Donald Trump's lack of attention won't make future food battles any less cutthroat. Plenty of people in Washington, including powerful factions within the Republican majority in Congress, are hoping to change a wide variety of food-related policies, and believe that the new administration offers a prime opportunity to make those changes happen. Kip Tom, a farmer in Indiana who was a member of Trump's advisory committee on agricultural policy, recently told The Salt that this is a time to "swing for the fences."

Parke Wilde, an expert on food policy at Tufts University, told us in an email that shortly after the election, he had predicted that food policies would escape radical changes simply because they enjoyed a lower profile. He has changed his mind since, because "every news report seems to show that the incoming administration plans to pursue 100 fights simultaneously. I have never seen that approach work in American politics previously. But, in these wild times, who knows?"

Here is a list of potential changes to watch for.

1. Will the successful alliance of farmers and poverty advocates crumble?

The Farm Bill, which funds both food stamps (now known as SNAP) and farm subsidies, is due to be renegotiated by the end of 2018. Some conservative Republicans probably will renew their efforts, previously unsuccessful, to scuttle the whole package, separating the farm-related provisions and the nutrition programs into separate bills. Many observers believe that this would leave each of them more vulnerable to attack. The political factions that have traditionally supported this bill, though, including farm groups and poverty advocates, are likely to mount a fierce counterattack. The stakes are high. SNAP, in particular, is one of the country's most important "safety net" programs for the poor.

2. School lunch reforms and nutrition standards may be under attack

There could be attempts to roll back parts of the school lunch reforms ushered in during the Obama administration. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has been a key player in pushing for healthier food in schools, told us that "given the deregulatory, anti-science rhetoric during the [Trump] campaign, we are on high alert." She says Congress "might try to rollback school meal standards or try to dismantle the National School Lunch Program" by converting them into "block grants" that states could manage with only limited federal oversight.

Wootan says other nutrition policies at risk include new menu labeling rules. Federal standards requiring chain restaurants to list calories on menus or menu boards are set to go into effect in 2017. Those rules were mandated by the Affordable Care Act. But Wootan says she's concerned that changes being considered by the incoming administration could "weaken the provision of information to consumers." And she says the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that were updated this year and serve as the basis for national nutrition programs "could be part of anti-science efforts" during the Trump administration. The guidelines are set to be updated again in 2020.

3. Will the administration compromise on farmworkers?

Hostility to illegal immigration was central to Trump's campaign. But farm groups, many of them bedrock supporters of the Republican Party, are adamantly opposed to any wholesale deportation of immigrants who aren't in the country legally. Many large-scale dairy farmers, and growers of fruits and vegetables, rely heavily on immigrant labor. This promises to be a delicate backroom negotiation.

4. Environmental regulations. Which will go first?

Among farmers, few regulations have inspired more hostility than the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Rule. It laid out, among other things, a definition of which waterways should be subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. Farmers were outraged to discover that some of their streams and ponds might be subject to federal regulation. It's likely that the EPA, under Scott Pruitt, will look for ways to withdraw or revise that rule.

Other environmental regulations that are less well-known but probably more significant may also face scrutiny. Among them are the "conservation compliance" provisions of the Farm Bill. Under this law, farmers who plow up native grasslands or drain wetlands can lose their federal crop subsidies. The EPA also could reduce the number of large-scale animal feeding operations that it regulates as "point sources" of pollution.

Environmental groups are concerned about what Trump's pick for EPA administrator will mean for the plight of bees. Bees are important to agriculture since so many crops rely on the pollination services they provide. And as we've reported, scientists are concerned that the widespread use of neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides on crops such as corn and soybeans is linked to bee decline. Under the Obama administration, the EPA has been reviewing the safety of neonics. The Sierra Club is watching this issue closely. It pointed out in an email to its supporters that "If Scott Pruitt is confirmed as EPA head ... it is clear he will severely weaken the EPA's power." The Sierra Club email continues: "the fate of bees — and all the crops and ecosystems that depend on them — may come down to a standoff between the Trump administration and science itself."

5. Will political inertia trump Trump?

Ferd Hoefner is one of the true veterans of Washington's food policy community. He has been part of these debates for almost four decades and has been policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farmers, for 28 years. And Hoefner, in contrast to every other policy advocate and lobbyist whom we contacted, believes that the Trump administration may choose to continue some pieces of Obama's legacy in food and farm policy.

Take the environment, he says. Alongside the predictable push to dismantle some environmental regulations, Hoefner sees a good chance that the next Farm Bill might actually contain a new initiative that environmentalists will welcome. It will focus on ways to improve the fertility and microbial health of farmland soil. Soil health has always been central to the concerns of organic farmers. "We have witnessed in the last several years a tremendous amount of interest in soil health from more conventional farms and organizations," Hoefner writes, in an email to The Salt.

Hoefner also predicts that the Trump administration will end up supporting another piece of the Obama legacy, a controversial regulation issued in recent weeks, that protects farmers from abuse at the hands of meat packers and large-scale poultry producers. According to Hoefner, it makes little sense, politically, for Trump to dump a rule that benefits some of his strongest supporters, small farmers who raise cattle, hogs and poultry.

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