With each new presidential administration, U.S. food policy tends to change and adhere closely to party lines. A Democratic administration will usually adopt liberal food and agriculture policies that may incorporate regulations that fight hunger, focus on consumer concerns, and mandate changes that favor consumers over corporations. In contrast, a Republican administration will often have a more conservative food policy including regulations that may benefit corporations and reign in spending on hunger programs. During the 2017 National Food Policy Conference, food policy experts provided their predictions of how the administration of President Donald J. Trump would handle food policy issues. But few could predict the sweeping changes the president outlined in his proposed budget that alienate not only Democrats but also Republicans.
At the 2017 National Food Policy Conference, Richard Frank, founding principal attorney, OFW Law, said that the Obama administration relied less on sound science and more on consumer concerns. He pointed out that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee during the Obama era did not have any food industry people on the committee, so many of the conclusions the committee made were not based on scientific evidence. According to Frank, the current dietary guidelines are thus touchy-feely and focus on sustainability, demonizing sugar, and other liberal agenda issues. Frank said that he is old enough to have gone through the war on sodium and the war on fat, and now he is witnessing a war on sugar and genetically modified foods. None of these nutrient wars is based on sound science, he said. Frank said that all of the emphasis on labeling of added sugars and GMOs is burdensome to industry and scientifically unsound. He thus predicted that the food-policy pendulum is about to make a hard swing to the right. He predicted that menu labeling will be on life support as he does not believe the Trump administration will support it, and there will be a shift back to less liberal activist policies. Frank said that, in general, Republicans enforce and Democrats overregulate, so he does not expect to see any new regulations, but there could be better enforcement of some regulations and putting others on hold.
Frank’s predictions were highly accurate: The Trump administration has announced its intention to eliminate or delay some of the requirements issued during the Obama administration for school lunch programs and menu labeling. The Trump administration plans to delay the mandate requiring schools to further reduce sodium levels in school lunches and will allow schools to forego ensuring half of grains offered during the school week are whole grains. In addition, 1% flavored milks will reappear in school cafeterias alongside nonfat flavored milks. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced that it will delay implementing the menu labeling law, which would require chain restaurants and other food retailers to post calorie information for all menu items, and extend indefinitely the deadline for compliance with revised nutrition facts labeling requirements. These measures have been praised by groups such as the School Nutrition Association (an organization representing school meal program operators), the National Association of Convenience Stores, the National Grocers Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, and other interested parties who thought these regulations were too prescriptive and overly burdensome.
Another speaker at the food policy conference was Charles F. Conner, president and chief executive officer, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Conner believes that agriculture will experience more prosperity if it takes full advantage of the scientific information and inputs available. “If we don’t regulate by science, then we will have dramatic sways in our food policy,” Conner said. While he applauded the fact that consumers are becoming more interested in where their food comes from, he was critical of the vast amount of misinformation activists and pseudoscientists are dispersing about agriculture. Conner said that farmer cooperatives are very frustrated with the food regulations being passed that are based not on scientific evidence but on consumer emotions and social media. He also expressed his displeasure with food companies and foodservice operations that are being short-sighted by allowing social media and consumer emotions to drive their decisions regardless of whether they are appropriate or accurate. Conner looks forward to working with the Trump administration’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. He predicted that Perdue, who has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, would be confirmed and that Perdue will be a strong champion of agriculture and will be guided by science. “An agriculture sector that does not accept science and technology is unsustainable,” Conner said. He also concluded that overregulation is holding back true progress in agriculture and that a strong science-based regulatory structure is key to agriculture and a strong food system.
As Conner predicted, the U.S. senate confirmed Perdue as the new Secretary of Agriculture in late April 2017, but what he did not predict were the Trump Administration’s massive proposed cuts to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s budget. Perdue may be a champion of agriculture but Trump clearly is not: Many of the proposed cuts would affect the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s supporters: farmers and other rural Americans. The proposed cuts include decreasing funds for the federally subsidized crop insurance program by 36%, reducing funding for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service by 26%, and slashing the funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by 25%. The Agricultural Research Service investigates scientific solutions for modern agricultural problems, enabling farmers and food manufacturers to provide high-quality safe food and other agricultural products, and rural Americans disproportionately receive benefits through SNAP—a program that supplies nutrition assistance to low-income U.S. households and food-insecure individuals—or other nutrition assistance programs.
And Susan Pitman, founder and executive vice president of FoodMinds, predicted that Trump’s focus on deporting undocumented immigrants will have a profound effect on farming and agriculture. Modern farming operations are completely dependent on the labor of undocumented immigrants because the wages are low for work that is hard (exposure to elements, long hours, physically strenuous labor, no overtime pay, etc.). For these reasons, up to 80% of farm workers are undocumented. Between Trump’s commitment to enforcing deportations and immigrant labor voluntarily leaving the United States, U.S. agricultural output could reduce by as much as $60 billion, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy, United Fresh Produce Association.
Fortunately for both Democrats and Republicans, Trump’s positions on food policy are just proposals: The U.S. Congress will make the final determination of what aspects of the Farm Bill and other food policy regulations will remain intact or be altered or eliminated. While congressional members may agree with some of Trump’s proposals, it is unlikely they will embrace all of them.
Toni Tarver is senior/writer editor of Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).