The Union of Concerned Scientists on What Trump’s Presidency Means for Food and Ag

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We speak with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, about the next four years.

Hints of what food and agriculture policy might actually look like under Donald Trump are emerging. The president elect has made extreme and sweeping promises on the campaign trail—from deporting millions of immigrants and building a wall to not honoring the Paris Climate Agreement—that are sure to affect the food supply.

To see what kind of impact we’re looking at and what we should be prepared for during the next four years, we caught up with Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists for a long conversation that you can read in full below.

And if it’s looking too long to read, at least consider this:

“We need to understand exactly what we are struggling against. Now these politicians are out there in the limelight. They’re speaking in very clear terms about what they stand for and what they’re going to oppose. That’s good, and that makes it clear what the contest is and whose interests are being served. This should, if anything could, unite the food movement and I think that if that happens, this will be a historical catalyst for what we might be able to accomplish together. It’s giving us a clear target for what we want to overcome.” —Ricardo Salvador

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Ricardo Salvador is a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Photo courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Edible Manhattan: Now that we have Trump as our next president, what should be our top food and agriculture policy concerns?
Ricardo Salvador: We have to have a clear understanding of the way in which this administration is going to go. As far as we know, they’re going to push production, and they have specifically said that they want to support what they’re terming “a return to conventional agriculture.” They want to directly attack the “good food movement” that they’ve directly referred to as people who’ve never grown more than a backyard tomato.

They’re also going to push exports as a way to get rid of surplus production that is lowering prices for commodity crops, so in essence that means that they’re going to be turning the Department of Agriculture into the sales department for big ag. There’s about 300,000 large-scale farmers who account for the majority of commodity production in the nation, so that leaves about two million farmers who are really going to be under pressure and whose needs are not going to be the priority of this new administration.

For the good food movement, this means that there’s going to be some regression in terms of the services and support we’ve had under the Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack‘s administration. What has to be recognized is that while these politicians continue to serve the interest of agribusiness, and about any Secretary of Agriculture would do that, Obama and Vilsack opened up the portfolio [of services] more than any other Secretary of Ag and they did create “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” with “found money.” They didn’t have to go to Congress and ask for new appropriations or authority; they basically redistributed resources that they found around the department and they did provide more resources for sustainable, organic, underserved farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers, etc. Even though [these initiatives] were pennies to the dollar as compared to what agribusiness has been getting, those were gains.

There will be gains under this new administration for the farm economy as measured by export sales, and I think all of us need to hold the new administration accountable to the portion of the electorate in farm country and in rural America who put them into office by actually tracking who the beneficiaries are going to be.

All of this is under threat now and so we need to keep an eye out. There will be gains under this new administration for the farm economy as measured by export sales, and I think all of us need to hold the new administration accountable to the portion of the electorate in farm country and in rural America who put them into office by actually tracking who the beneficiaries are going to be. The beneficiaries are going to be large-scale farmers and agribusiness and not the farming interests that put these people into office. So I think that’s going to be part of the narrative that we all need to keep an eye on and to strictly hold the Trump administration accountable.

I have colleagues and partners across the country who are distraught by the electoral outcome, and of course it is a setback. Without doing any fine-grain analysis here, there are some of us, and I include myself in this group, who while disappointed and surprised, we’re not despondent, because what this electoral outcome has revealed is essentially a world that has been there all along—it’s just surfaced now and been revealed. We’re now seeing this in the people who Trump is naming as potential secretaries and advisers. If they act as they’ve said they will, there’s going to be an unmitigated disaster in farm country, and it will clearly be something that can be pinned to them. There are some things that we can do in terms of following the stories and making sure to track the narrative of who’s being served with public resources. That’s my interpretation of how things are developing, at least so far.

EM: Given the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, we can’t not address what his presidency could mean for immigration and farm workers in this country. Can you illustrate what sort of impact what Trump has said might have on the food supply?
RS: At just a very superficial level, if he follows through on his threat to deport two to three million immigrant workers, a large share of whom would have to be the agricultural labor force, then that would mean an unmitigated disaster for agricultural interests. One of the first things to keep an eye out for is how he’s going to deal with [the promise of deportation] given that some of his strongest agricultural supporters represent businesses whose whole business models are predicated on immigrant labor (because they do jobs and work for wages that the “domestic labor force” would never consider).

Now if he were to follow through against the business and political interests that put him in power—let’s just say that he does exactly what he’s said during the campaign, which would go against all political convention, political logic and expectations—then food prices will go up. There’s an economic logic there that basically has to do with the fact that we’re exploiting farm laborers and not paying what their labor is worth. So when that exploitation is no longer possible because we have deported the workforce, then we’ll forego some domestic production, or food prices will go up, or both.

One of the first things to keep an eye out for is how he’s going to deal with [the promise of deportation] given that some of his strongest agricultural supporters represent businesses whose whole business models are predicated on immigrant labor.

Now, this is all of course a complicated question. I don’t think that scenario is going to entirely develop. I think he’s going to be schooled by his agricultural advisers, which is going to be a huge issue for him since he made such a big deal out of building the wall and deporting immigrants and so on. This will be one place to hold him accountable to empty promises that will show his deep ignorance about the way that the economy actually works. But it’s a complicated topic because those of us who support food justice believe that food prices should go up and not because we’re elitist, but because of the fact that neither farmers nor farm laborers are actually getting their fair share of the food dollar because it is being concentrated in other parts of the economy.

One way to deal with that is for all of us to put more money into the food system so that farmers and farm laborers actually get their fair share. A much bigger ask is to basically oppose the concentration of all of the wealth that the food system is generating among shareholders, investors and agribusiness. When we say that food prices should go up so that farm laborers and farmers get more of the food dollar, it’s not an elitist argument, it’s a food justice argument because you can’t ask for affordable prices on the retail end and then not recognize that there isn’t enough money to redistribute. We should be ashamed as a wealthy nation to be bragging about only paying six percent of our disposable income for food. It should be a national disgrace that we’ve been proud of that figure, because what it really says is that we’re proud of exploiting the farmers and farm laborers who make it possible.

So it’s a complicated question and neither the incoming president nor any of the agricultural advisers that he’s named has shown the sensitivity or sophistication to acknowledge any of that.

EM: I could go down a list of specific food and agriculture issues including climate change, food safety, government food assistance, etc. that I think are wrapped up in the good food movement. In general though, the good food movement as a whole has been critiqued in the past decade for being too diffuse in a way that has prevented achieving political gains. Do you think that Trump’s presidency and this time is an opportunity to unite?
RS: You’re absolutely right. What I have learned in coming to Washington is that the point you made is critical. When you are working with folks who are in office, it’s really important to recognize that they can’t deal in generalities, they can’t deal with philosophical issues. You need to make really concrete asks, and you need to be really clear about what the political bargains are that make the whole political system work.

The things that we ask of these politicians need to be things that will get them back into office and will get them the support of their constituents, and the food movement can provide that. We really believe the things that we’re talking about. We have solutions that will actually benefit the majority of farmers, not just some of them. The majority of eaters, not just some of us. So we need to translate those into very specific asks of the sort that turn into both economic development and generate support for the politicians who back these sorts of agendas.

The things that we ask of these politicians need to be things that will get them back into office and will get them the support of their constituents, and the food movement can provide that.

Really concrete examples of this are things like the Good Food Purchasing Program, which has been adopted in several school districts and cities around the country. The whole concept is to utilize the purchasing power of the large institutions or a whole municipality to leverage the way that the foodshed operates; the gains are economic to the regional economy and to the health of eaters, particularly children, as these movements can start in school districts. So it’s a win-win multiple benefit sort of thing and when that translates into economic benefit in both the short term and long term, then politicians who support that will have a winning hand.

In terms of uniting the food movement, that answer is we must be specific. I’m actually working on that initiative with the HEAL Food Alliance, which is the concerted effort to create a forum for the food movement to connect within itself, strategize and come up with a unified vision, then divide the work and then get on task on a broad front to advance our issues.

Under the HEAL Food Alliance, one of the things that we have done is to develop a 10-point platform to further organize participants into working groups addressing very specific things like local community food and economic development, climate and agriculture, and championing the positive examples of clean corporations.

This fundamental inequity has historical roots in racism and other issues and we’re very bold about actually naming those problems and saying that’s where we need to unite.

There are some very concrete things coming out of that, and in working with politicians, we need to be talking about root causes of the dysfunctions and inequalities in the food system—the fact that some of us can have any food that we want whenever we want it and as much of it while some of us, and particularly those of us who are responsible for enabling the food system to work that way—mainly farm laborers, food chain workers, retail workers and so on—have to be on food stamps. The very people who serve and clean up after us can’t afford to take part in the food system that their labor makes possible. This fundamental inequity has historical roots in racism and other issues and we’re very bold about actually naming those problems and saying that’s where we need to unite. We need to deal with root causes.

EM: On a personal note, as someone who grew up on my family’s farm in the rural South, I feel like there are some similar values and concerns between between rural Trump supporters and the good food movement. I see common ground in terms of supporting farmers and the overall well-being of rural communities. Do you think there are narratives within the good food movement that can appeal to some of Trump’s rural supporters?
RS: Oh absolutely, yes. I mentioned earlier that we don’t have the time to get into fine-grain analysis of the very complicated dynamics of this election but my interpretation is that clearly the rural and farm electorate has detected that there is something wrong. But I think that the diagnosis is wrong and therefore the prescription is wrong.

The diagnosis is that because of a corrupt government, we have growing inequality and we have marginalization and basically the pushing aside and ignoring of the issues that matter to farm country and to rural citizens. The prescription has been voting for somebody who’s going to shake up the system. That’s a really misbegotten analysis because the actual problem is that this is the way that neoliberal economies work: They work hand-in-hand with government to concentrate wealth. It’s a wealth transfer system explicitly. You don’t then put in an elitist who benefits from that system and who has shown for 70 years of his life that his first concern is his own interest and then expect that suddenly he’s going to be working on behalf of the public interest. The man’s got all sorts of business conflicts of interests right now that he’s showing no intention to resolve and that he wants to bring with him all the way into the White House. We’re seeing that he doesn’t understand the role of the president. He’s showing us that he’s going to rule as both an autocrat and a plutocrat.

The reality of farmers and farm labor in this country is that these populations are victims of neoliberal economics. We understand the common cause that we have: All of us are about what’s best for farmers, and farmers are a very complicated demographic.

There is a whole lot that unites the rural and farm populations against the nation’s plutocracy. The reality of farmers and farm labor in this country is that these populations are victims of neoliberal economics. We understand the common cause that we have: All of us are about what’s best for farmers, and farmers are a very complicated demographic. They’re not monolithic, and a bell curve could represent who the farmers are, from low- to high-income. The middle of that curve is a big distribution with a huge population that could be allies with the food movement and farm laborers and who could mutually reinforce one another.

EM: I’d like to shift gears somewhat and talk about GMOs, which I heard you and Monsanto Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley speak about recently at the New York Times Food for Tomorrow Conference (video above). Under a Trump agenda, at least based on what he’s said, all we can assume so far is that the agriculture agenda is going to be in favor of corporations. For better or worse, lots of those corporations are in favor of increasing the application of genetically modified organisms. Can you give me your big picture view of the role you think GMOs should play in the future of our global food supply?
RS: I think it is in our interest to continue to do the research into how the genome works. This is basic fundamental science. We’re scientists and we completely support that.

Now GMOs are not a panacea and in fact they have been oversold and in a way that has caused a great deal of damage. The benefit to farmers has been the current deployment of very simple genetic modifications that have saved them time—that’s really why farmers love them. And by saving them time, it’s in the service of continuing to practice large-scale industrial agriculture. Now this will continue to be the case for just about any technology that the current agribusiness sector generates because, as you heard me say in New York, they’re focused on selling a product based on the marketing slogan of “feeding the world” and so on, and as the science demonstrates, they have not been increasing yield.

Now here are places where GMO technology could be of significant help, and for that to occur, genetic modification needs to be developed in the public interest, which means that there needs to be much more public investment in developing these technologies. It’s a suite of technologies that I’m talking about. Most of the folks who are concerned about biotech and are opposed to biotech are focusing on a very narrow aspect of the revolution in biotechnology, which involves the first thing I mentioned to you about understanding how our genomes work. We’re already benefiting in the field of medicine, and there are very few people I think who, fully aware of all of these benefits, would oppose the research and knowledge that this is bringing. But I think what brings about the justifiable and strong opposition is that right now this technology is in the hands of the private sector and they’re only developing it in a way that brings huge profits to them. They’re bamboozling a section of the farm population into believing that these are essential and that without them they cannot farm in a modern way. And in fact, as currently practiced, I think they’re useless. There are many ecological alternatives that address the goals that the biotech industry is marketing through expensive seeds (e.g. pest management, weed control).

I think what brings about the justifiable and strong opposition is that right now this technology is in the hands of the private sector and they’re only developing it in a way that brings huge profits to them.

I’ll just mention one of the places where there’s potential: Some crop species are able to associate with free-living soil bacteria to fix atmospheric nitrogen under standard temperature and pressure. We can replicate that with huge investments of fossil energy, but if instead we utilized biotechnology to transfer that capability to all of the world’s major crops, it would be a sustainable way of maintaining the nitrogen balance between the atmosphere, soil, crops and our food system. It would be far different from the system we have right now that creates all sorts of problems of pollution, contamination, public health issues and so on.

Creating these crops is a possibility, but at least not in the hands of the private sector and the business models that they have in place right now. This science has been a pipe dream until very recently and now the technology has developed to where large-scale, multiple-gene regulation makes those things a possibility. Up until now, the technology’s only been able to manipulate one or a few genes at a time, but now there’s actually a possibility of affecting morphology, which is necessary for these trait modifications I’ve described to be expressed, as well as whole physiological pathways. I see some potential there and I think we need to keep an eye on it, because the whole direction in which it has gone right now, again, with present business models, is almost exclusively to the financial benefit of the private sector. I don’t think anybody who cares about public health, the environment and what this does for farmers should be supporting that.

EM: Do you see some silver lining in the next four years for what the good food movement might achieve?
RS: As I said, we need to understand exactly what we are struggling against. Now these politicians are out there in the limelight. They’re speaking in very clear terms about what they stand for and what they’re going to oppose. That’s good, and that makes it clear what the contest is and whose interests are being served. This should, if anything could, unite the food movement and I think that if that happens, this will be a historical catalyst for what we might be able to accomplish together. It’s giving us a clear target for what we want to overcome.

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.