The most significant event in food and agriculture over the past year did not take place on our farms. Nor did it occur in our factories, in our restaurants or on our kitchen tables. It happened in the voting booth.
Rural voters turned out in overwhelming support of Donald Trump, throwing a Hail Mary pass against the growing economic hardship felt by these communities. Caught in a toxic cycle of depressed commodity prices, rising debt and plummeting income, it comes as no surprise that American farmers voted en masse for change and the hope of different leadership with new ideas.
Trump struck a chord with farmers and other rural voterswho were eager for change and desperate to recapture economic opportunity in their industries and communities. Sadly, the inconsistencies of Trump’s agenda are poised to inflict the greatest damage in these pockets of the country that most faithfully supported him.
So far, Trump is assembling an administration that looks unlikely to support the wellbeing of ordinary Americans, including our rural and farming communities. But with a nomination for secretary of agriculture still to come, he has the chance to tap a leader committed to serving the true interests of all of rural America: someone with the vision and strength to rectify campaign promises that will inevitably harm the livelihood of farmers, ranchers and rural citizens.
It does not require close scrutiny to identify where Trump’s proposals would be harmful to American agriculture.
Campaign promises to cancel or renegotiate trade agreements hold the potential to eliminate major markets for US agricultural products and raise prices for imports – such as fruit and vegetables from the tropics and southern hemisphere – that Americans have come to expect year-round. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that fewer exports and higher import prices will not stimulate a market economy. In fact, they will work counter to the economic prosperity of American farmers who depend on global trade.
Vows to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the Mexican border to constrict the flow of these immigrants would significantly affect the already limited agricultural workforce, as well as the workforce across the food chain that’s heavily comprised of undocumented workers. According to the US Department of Labor’s own count, nearly half of farmworkers in the US are undocumented – a figure widely regarded as an underestimation. Stemming this flow of workers would raise farmers’ costs and lower productivity, threatening the very lifeline of American farming and, in turn, threatening food security nationwide.
On top of that, Trump vows to bring jobs back to the US while repeatedly flip-flopping on raising the federal minimum wage. And in an appointment so sinister it almost seems like a hoax, Trump has nominated Andrew Puzder, a fast food CEO and a staunch opponent of raising the minimum wage, to lead the labor department, an entity responsible for overseeing our nation’s labor policy and protecting our workers. Without raising the minimum wage, the new administration will be hard-pressed to to fill vacant agricultural jobs with its blue-collar supporters – many of whom have complained about losing work to immigrants.
Trump’s immigration agenda and resistance to raising wages could decimate the domestic production of fruit, vegetables, dairy and processed meats. Low-paying jobs do little to attract American workers, and without immigrant workers to fill the overwhelming gap, farmers will see their production capacity drop and their sales plummet, inevitably raising food prices. The irony of this scenario is palpable: we are the world’s largest agricultural producer, yet policy decisions such as these will worsen our ability to provide enough domestically produced, affordable fruit and vegetables to meet domestic demand.
Despite his campaign’s populist, antitrust tone, Trump has appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, all but paving the way for extreme consolidation of big agricultural businesses. Sessions is unlikely to instruct the Department of Justice to oppose mergers like the pending $66bn marriage between Monsanto and Bayer, which is set to create the world’s largest seed and chemical company – resulting in fewer choices and higher costs to both farmers and consumers. Failing to block mergers in these industries will further damage already struggling rural economies.
It is also worth noting that the rural and farming populations don’t always share the same interests. About 19% of the country’s population is rural, whereas about 2% are farmers and ranchers, very few of whom share the interests of corporate agribusiness. In siding with large agribusiness interests that want to roll back environmental regulations that protect clean air and water in vast swaths of the country, the Trump administration would threaten the health and wellbeing of the majority of people living in those regions.
Mere days away from the inauguration, Trump needs to reconcile his conflicting campaign pledges if his administration is to truly help the rural voters who swept him into power. To start, his administration must survey the entire food system and recognize that great economic opportunities will result from policies that support immigration and higher wages, incorporate environmental protections, address growing domestic demand for healthy food and safeguard our workers’ health. If Trump wants to deliver on his promise of greater prosperity for all, he must enact comprehensive policies that prioritize the wellbeing of the American people over benefits for a select few.
We’ve heard that above all else, Trump values loyalty. Now it is his chance to demonstrate loyalty to the base that elected him by appointing a secretary of agriculture who will truly support them.
Originally Posted: theguardian.com