What is Donald Trump's policy on food and will it affect the UK?

Kierra Box

22 February 2017

Trump's attitudes to food will be increasingly important for the UK as post-Brexit Britain seeks to replace European trading partners. Hormone-treated beef anyone?

Trump’s own diet is famously high in meat and processed fast food. But prior to the election, he didn’t offer many opinions on how the rest of America should be producing, trading and eating. So how can we be sure what Donald Trump will mean for food and farming across America and beyond?

One area where Trump did have a lot to say was around immigration. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that undocumented migrants make up around half of all hired farm workers.

US cows on a farm
If immigrant labour is cut milk production could be halved, by Shellie

If the Mexico border does close, this would have a serious impact on the number of workers available to support food production. According to the National Milk Producers Federation, eliminating immigrant labour in the dairy industry would cut milk production almost in half, doubling prices and costing the US economy over $32 billion.

It’s not just milk either. Eater.com argues that walling off the southern border of the US could lead to "a 3% reduction in grain production; a 27% reduction in meat production; a 31% drop in vegetable production and a 61% drop in fruit production."

This could cut food production and increase prices across the board.

Less regulation and more industrial agriculture

How will that food be produced? The men who will shape US agricultural policy over the next 4 years offer us some clues. Former Georgia Governor, fertiliser magnate and champion of the contract poultry industry Sonny Perdu, was named as Agriculture Secretary early in 2017. He is known to have some very close ties to the industrialised agriculture sector — between 1995 and 2014 Perdue received more than $275,000 in farm subsidies from the USDA.

Like Trump, Perdue has little time for those concerned about climate change, writing that those calling for climate action “are so obviously disconnected from reality.” With agriculture responsible for about 10 per cent of US greenhouse gas emissions, views like these could have a catastrophic impact on global climate change.

During the Presidential campaign Perdue served on Trump’s agricultural advisory committee, which spoke out about the need to “defend American agriculture against its critics”, slash regulations and fight the "good food" movement.

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Other members of the agricultural advisory committee include Forrest Lucas, well known for fighting against animal welfare organisations, and Bruce Rastetter, the largest pig producer in Iowa. Together, these appointments suggest a focus on industrial agriculture and meat production, which will be bad news for the environment and for global consumers looking for sustainable, high-quality American food.

Trump on food and farming regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces rules around how food is produced to protect the environment and human health. Reductions to the power of the EPA could therefore make it easier for food producers to damage and pollute land, water and the climate, or lead to the removal of regulations intended to protect consumers from dangerous foodstuffs.

Trump has labelled the EPA "a disaster" claiming he would abolish it, and has made negative comments about regulations around agricultural production. While abolishing the agency would be very difficult, any rules and regulations planned but not signed off by the EPA (or Food and Drugs Administration) will be vulnerable to cuts. This includes new rules about animal welfare and organic food.

Farmer holds fresh vegetables
Standards in organic food production could weaken, by Istock

During his campaign, President-elect Trump expressed his disdain for federal regulations and vowed to relieve regulatory burden on businesses. So how will this apply to the National Organic Program (NOP) at the USDA?

While it may not face elimination – as one conservative faction in Congress has advocated – it feels optimistic to expect organic farming subsidies to progress, and likely that regulations ensuring high environmental standards in production could be weakened.

Agriculture Secretary Perdue offers no direction – he has never given an indication of his feelings about organic production.

However it could be interesting to look at any ongoing influence from Trump's daughter Ivanka, given her preferences for healthy food and organic options.

What is Donald Trump’s policy on Genetic Modification (GM)?

GM labelling has become a big public issue in the US. Because of the lack of federal labelling laws, unlabelled GM foods are routinely sold and eaten. In recent years, a number of state-level campaigns have increased the profile of the issue and gained widespread public support.  

Yet the 2016 Republican platform states "we oppose the mandatory labelling of genetically modified food" – and Trump agrees with this stance. He even selected Senator Pat Roberts – the primary sponsor of the "Deny Americans the Right to Know Act" – to sit on his agriculture advisory committee. The Act makes it impossible for individual states to legislate for labelling of GMO foods.

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Recent rules which improve levels of public scrutiny on applications for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service approval of new GM organisms could also be at risk.

Trump also has a (relatively small) vested interest in Monsanto – major suppliers of GM seeds and agrichemicals, most notably the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). He holds up to $50,000 of Monsanto stock in 2 wealth management accounts with Deutsche Bank.

While previously predictably positive about GM products, in 2015 Trump appeared to change tack and take a pot shot at Monsanto in a re-tweet, only to take it down later and claim one of his staff had sent it out.

He has recently met with Monsanto, claiming credit for keeping the business headquartered within the US. In typical Trump style, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what he thinks on this one.

How might Trump affect health and food?

While in office Obama signed an Executive Order Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. This states that "the Food and Drug Administration...shall continue taking steps to eliminate the use of medically important classes of antibiotics for growth promotion purposes in food-producing animals".

At the end of 2016, the FDA announced further controls on access to antibiotics and bought in voluntary measures to cut their use. With the US already directing around 80% of antibiotics to livestock rather than humans, continued action on this issue will be hugely important in protecting global populations from the development of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs". But again, Trump's opposition to regulation risks undermining current progress.

The USDA recently published data showing that 85% of food tested contained pesticide residues, hundreds of examples exceeding so called "safe" limits set by the EPA.

There is concern that scrutiny of pesticide safety may soften given comments by Myron Ebell during his leadership of the EPA transition team.

Ebell suggested that the agency would prioritise stripping "harmful" regulations on air, water and pesticide use, and dismantle climate-related rules. In fact, Ebell argues that "residues can be hundreds of times above regulatory limits and still be safe".

A field being sprayed with pesticides
Pesticide safety rules could soften under the Trump administration, by Istock

A couple of months before the election Trump published a paper setting out his reasons for wanting to slash food safety regulations – but this then disappeared from his website before voting began.

However, this doesn’t mean that these policies have been abandoned, and there are still concerns that under Trump, in combination with a relaxation of production regulations, Congress may try to starve the FDA of resources and funds, hampering its ability to enforce food safety rules.

Food safety regulation is already weaker in America than across Europe. If rules and regulations around food production are loosened, environmentally-damaging processes and associated threats of human exposure will be higher. Trump needs to leave these alone.

In 2016, the government food assistance programme SNAP saved 1/7 Americans from going hungry. Trump has suggested introducing tougher eligibility rules for those looking for support through the scheme. He has also suggested breaking the link between SNAP and other agricultural subsidies when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2018. This change, backed by the Republican party, would make SNAP highly vulnerable to budget cuts.

Trump and food subsidies

It doesn't stop there. Trump seems likely to roll back other food subsidies, including free breakfast and lunch provision at school, and cut nutritional programmes.

Vice-President Mike Pence has voiced support for passing the Republican-sponsored Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act, introduced in April 2016. This act proposes cutting "community eligibility" schemes which made it easier for schools with large numbers of poorer students to provide free school meals.

Agriculture Committee member Sid Miller said: “It’s absolutely crazy to give free and reduced lunches to 60% of the people that get it. We’re just giving them away, and I’ve got a plan to address that".

Miller has a track record on these issues before his appointment to the Agriculture and Rural Advisory Committee. Upon his election as Texas Agricultural Commissioner in 2015, Miller immediately lifted limits on the amount of unhealthy, fried and sugary foods that children could access at school.

Former Agriculture Secretary Vilsack doesn't seem too concerned that progress on healthy eating will be undone – but he does think that sustainability will continue to be off the table when federal dietary guidelines are next updated.

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