On Jan. 18, President Donald Trump nominated Sonny Perdue, former Georgia governor, to be the next secretary of agriculture. In many respects, Perdue looks to be a reasonable pick for the position — he grew up on a row-crop farm; he is trained as a veterinarian; and he now runs an international trading company that deals in food and agricultural products. In other words, unlike some cabinet nominees, Perdue is familiar with what his department does and he has experience and knowledge.
Nonetheless, Perdue’s record demands closer attention. He is an adamant climate change denier. As governor, he refused to support a resolution put forth by African-American state legislators apologizing for Georgia’s support for slavery. He also has close ties to agribusiness. As governor of Georgia, for example, he oversaw a dramatic expansion of factory farming, particularly in the poultry sector. His tenure saw overall farm sales go from $4.9 billion in 2002 to $9.3 billion in 2012, while the number of farms in Georgia actually declined by 17 percent (compared with a 1 percent national decline).
While in office, he blocked efforts to regulate factory farms, while at the same time overseeing a $155 million expansion of Perdue Farms (no relation) in the state and blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts under President George W. Bush to enforce the Clean Air Act. And, during his two terms as governor, he received more than $330,000 in campaign contributions from agribusiness companies, including Monsanto. He was named the 2009 Governor of the Year by the GMO lobby group Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
Under Perdue’s tenure as governor, major cutbacks were made in offices such as the Consumer Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which saw its budget slashed by more than a quarter. Saving money is not to be criticized. Unless, of course, it comes at the expense of public safety. In a response to a salmonella outbreak at the Peanut Corporation of America’s Georgia plant, which killed nine people and sickened more than 700, officials stated that resource constraints limited both the frequency and scope of food safety inspections in the state.
During the august days of the Obama Administration, policies were approved to protect some of the above concerns. The Farmer Fair Practices Rules, for example, would help restore a measure of balance between farmers and their buyers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the new regulation targets “the most harmful practices hurting farmers and clearly outlines common sense protections to restore fairness and reduce the burden for farmers seeking justice under the Packers and Stockyards Act.” Based on Perdue’s history of support for factory farms, it is likely he will reject this regulation, despite the USDA’s estimate that it would add no more than 1/100 of a cent to the per-pound price of meat.
When Sonny Perdue sits down at his nomination hearing, he must be asked the tough questions. His answers will reveal his stance on a range of issues that are crucial to the nation’s health, the strength of its rural communities, and the integrity of its food supply. I suggest the following:
- What do you believe is the purpose of the USDA?
- How is the agency supposed to balance its enforcement responsibilities with its market promotion responsibilities?
- What should the goal of government farm subsidies be? Are you in favor of payment limits, and how can these be enforced to achieve their intended objectives?
- What will you do to ensure that small farmers are not exploited by livestock buyers, and that they are not forced to endure unreasonable contract terms?
- What will you do to make sure that civil rights laws are followed in the administration of USDA programs?
- How do you plan to you enforce food safety laws in the interest of public health?
- Do you believe that climate change threatens the viability of American agriculture?
Among other duties, the Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for ensuring that the U.S. food supply is safe, plentiful, nutritious, financially beneficial for farmers and resource-conserving. Perdue’s record, however, opens up questions about whether he can do this (or wants to). His record indicates he is be a strong advocate for agribusiness, that he wants to roll back regulations on large-scale farming — at the expense of small farmers, workers, the environment and consumers.
Adam Diamond teaches and does research on food and agricultural policy at American University’s School of International Service. Prior to joining AU he did applied research on farmers markets and local food systems at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.