President Trump has nominated Sonny Perdue, the former governor of Georgia, to be his secretary of agriculture. It’s a wide-ranging position at the head of a vast department, but one immediate question is where Perdue will stand on a number of environmental initiatives launched under the leadership of former secretary Tom Vilsack, who focused attention on the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from farming and, simultaneously, to prepare the agricultural community itself for a changing climate.
There’s no doubting Perdue’s extensive agricultural background or ties to the agricultural business community — the former Georgia governor (and former Democrat) grew up on a farm, has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and ran a fertilizer-and-grain company. The American Farm Bureau Federation, a leading agricultural group, has strongly endorsed his nomination, with President Zippy Duvall saying Perdue will “provide the strong voice that agriculture needs in the new administration. He is an outstanding nominee.”
But some green groups have expressed concerns about the nomination, given Perdue’s past comments suggesting he may take a different line than Vilsack did on matters related to climate change.
Writing in National Review in 2014, Perdue criticized attempts by “some on the left or in the mainstream media” to connect climate change to weather events. “Liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality,” he wrote.
Under former president Barack Obama, the Agriculture Department set up regional “climate hubs” to help farmers and landowners adapt to a changing climate. “There’s been a lot of work in developing, under the [previous] administration, climate resilience or climate smart agriculture,” said Charles Rice, an agronomy professor at Kansas State University.
And then there’s the contribution of agriculture itself to warming and other environmental problems. Agriculture produced 9 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. Accordingly, the Obama administration had promised to curb agriculture’s contribution to climate change by reducing 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year by 2025. It’s not clear whether these policies would continue under Perdue.
While the responsibilities of the agriculture secretary don’t directly state that he or she must consider climate change in decision-making, Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at Environmental Working Group, said the next secretary should. “Frankly, the next agriculture secretary should be leading efforts to require more environmental stewardship in exchange for the nearly $140 billion subsidies taxpayers provide to agriculture every year,” Faber said.
Faber is not the only one in the environmental community worried about what this appointment means. “Perdue’s background indicates he will be a protector of Big Ag interests,” said Erik Olson, director of the Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement. “But America needs a Secretary of Agriculture who’s responsive to a host of current concerns, from healthy food production and safe water quality to biodiversity and the impact of climate change.”
As the comment suggests, on the environmental front, it’s not just climate change. Farber also said he worries that Perdue’s ties to agribusiness will interfere with other environmental measures. Between the years 1995-2014, Perdue received more than $275,000 in farm subsidies from the USDA, according to Faber’s organization.
“Given his track record as a fertilizer salesman who’s received significant financial contributions from big chemical companies and farm lobbies we’re very certain the government will put the needs of chemical companies ahead of needs of the environment,” Faber said.
One major role for the new agriculture secretary will be in shaping the next Farm Bill when it comes up for renewal in 2018.
This massive piece of legislation effectively authorizes multiple Agriculture Department programs, and some analysts have suggested that under a Trump administration, the legislation “will shift even more toward business sustainability and away from conservation.”
That could mean cuts to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the department that works with farmers on voluntary initiatives to conserve soil health and water resources, or other conservation programs.
However, William Rodger, director of policy and communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation, disputed that conservation programs at USDA are likely to fare poorly as part of the next farm bill.
“Farmers are strongly committed to preserving the integrity of their own lands and have made enormous strides in preserving the world around them,” he said. “The vast majority spend a great deal of time learning and practicing techniques to help them care for the land and environment in which they operate.”
In addition to domestic agriculture, the way the farm bill is put together can influence everything from research to the agricultural practices in other nations. “What they want to emphasize or de-emphasize can have a dramatic effect on agriculture around the world, as well as impact directly on farmers here in the United States,” Rice says.
The secretary of agriculture and the 2018 Farm Bill can affect the fate of public lands. The U.S. Forest Service is an agency under the Agriculture Department, which administers 193 million acres of public forest and grassland. In a statement from the National Park Conservation Association, President and chief executive Theresa Pierno said it will be up to the secretary to push back on congressional policies that prioritize logging, mining and drilling in and around national forests and she hopes Perdue continues to express the conservation values he did as governor.
“The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for policies that can have a tremendous impact on our national parks,” Pierno said. “Many national forests stand at the border of parks, including Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, sharing ecosystems that are critical to both landscapes and the resources they support.”
As governor of Georgia, Perdue expressed interest in protecting public lands from the harms Pierno warns about. In 2005, he announced the Georgia Land Conservation Act to promote conservation of the state’s natural resources with the establishment of $100 million in funding for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and local government to purchase conservation lands.
“It is a commitment to our children and grandchildren,” Perdue said in the 2005 news release, “to preserve a statewide network of land and water resources, prime agricultural and forestry lands, and natural, historic and recreational areas for them to enjoy.”
— Chris Mooney contributed to this report.