The USDA reorganizes for its “customers,” throws science under the bus

Sonny Perdue holding a pig

On September 7, in a message to U.S. Department of Agriculture employees, Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced the second phase of the re-organization of USDA “in order to improve customer service and maximize efficiency.”  The re-organization subordinates scientific and technical agencies to commercial and trade offices, and merges offices to “reduce redundancies.”  This very likely will reduce the number of USDA employees, but which customers will be better served?

Consider Secretary Perdue’s rationale for moving the Office of Pesticide Management Policy (OPMP) out of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and under the authority of the Office of the Chief Economist. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) recently described ARS as “USDA’s chief scientific in-house research agency, which researches and develops solutions on complex agricultural problems.” Historically, USDA policy agencies, such as OPMP, have depended on ARS for scientific advice.

Secretary Perdue justified re-assigning OPMP by stating “Its [OPMP’s] focus does not coincide with the mission of ARS and can be better situated in the Office of the Chief Economist.” If OMPM coincided with ARS, the office would be redundant, and slated for elimination or folding in to another office. But farmers and everyone affected by pesticides will not be better served by having the Chief Economist have the final say in USDA’s pesticide policy.

Consider the current pesticide management controversies over the 70 million acres of glyphosate resistant super-weeds (as of 2013), the about 3.1 million acres of crops killed by dicamba herbicide drift in 2016, and the input from USDA that resulted in EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt’s, decision to reject an EPA science advisory panel to ban the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is particularly hazardous to children.  OPMP should make pesticide management policy decisions based on ARS science, rather than on the Chief Economist’s forecasts of the costs to industry of banning or restricting the use of particularly hazardous pesticides.

NAPA researchers interviewed IATP for its report (page 86) on options for  creating the position of Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA), a report that was mandated in the 2014 Farm Bill. The NAPA report Panel stated it “strongly opposes the industry’s preferred reorganization option of moving health and safety regulatory agencies, in whole or in part, to the U/S [Undersecretary] for Trade and places a priority on maintaining the independence of these agencies for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, putting these critical functions under the authority of trade promotion would threaten the protection of human, animal, and plant health. It would also violate principles of public administration and organizational design, and undermine the trust of importing countries in the quality and safety of United States agricultural products.” (page 7) This position reflects IATP’s position, and those of other consulted organizations, on the options for organizing the TFAA.

The Trump administration and Secretary Perdue ignored the NAPA report and heeded the agribusiness preference for subordinating agencies in charge of food safety, animal health, plant health, grain inspection and meat inspection to the Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Affairs or to the Agriculture Marketing Service. What will the Trump administration’s rejection of NAPA’s expert advice mean for USDA’s “customers,” including consumers? (The reorganization of USDA offices that protect and conserve the natural resource base of agriculture are yet to be announced.)

The U.S. Trade Representative and agribusiness have long argued that food and plant safety rules must  be “based on science,” as science is interpreted in trade agreements. For example, food safety management measures based on science may be applied subject to their “economic feasibility” for agricultural producers and traders.  This subordinate, and yet discrete function of science in trade policy, is formalized in the further in the Trump administration’s design of the Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA).

Secretary Perdue alluded to the role of science in expediting trade as it relates to U.S. participation in the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food safety and quality standards organization: “The U.S. Codex Office is an interagency partnership which engages stakeholders in the development of international governmental and non-governmental food standards.  The focus of the Codex Office aligns better with the mission of TFAA.”  The mission of the TFAA is to increase U.S. agricultural exports and imports. The missions of the USDA, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies in the U.S. Codex Office are not only more complex, but unlike the TFAA, are agencies whose food safety, animal health, plant health and environmental regulations are required by law to be based in science. 

The NAPA authors note that the loss of independence of the science-based agencies will “undermine the trust of importing countries in the quality and safety of United States agricultural products.”   Requiring the U.S. Codex Office agencies to carry out the TFAA mission will further diminish the scientific credibility of U.S. delegations to Codex Commission and committee meetings. U.S. scientists in U.S. Codex Office meetings must be able to say “no” to standards proposed, in the final instance, by a trade official. If they cannot say “no,” then Codex standards will be approved at the direction of trade officials, using industry studies as the scientific basis for Codex standard setting.

For example, as IATP reported in 2012, the scientific basis for the Codex Commission to approve, by a 69 to 67 vote, a standard for ractopamine, was just six studies, half by the drug’s manufacturer. Ractopamine is a failed asthma drug repurposed as a veterinary drug to decrease the fat content of meat in livestock by increasing the animal’s heart rate. The U.S. Codex Office was under enormous pressure from the livestock industry and veterinary drug industry to lobby other Codex member governments to vote for the very contentious standard on how much ractopamine residue in meat may be safely consumed. Ractopamine is banned in China, all 27 member states of the European Union and other countries.

The Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 for failing to make public about 100,000 pages of documents pertaining to FDA’s approval of ractopamine for use in the animal feed of about a billion cows, pigs and turkeys, according to a 2014 lawsuit against FDA. The lack of transparency and scientific peer review in this FDA regulatory approval will be magnified under the decision power given to the Undersecretary of TFAA in the USDA reorganization.  

As agriculture products are derived from complex technological platforms, such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology, U.S. agricultural export policy will require more transparent and better scientific advice for U.S. standards and Codex standards, both to have credibility in importing countries and to ensure their safety. U.S. agricultural import policy will require a more transparent and better scientific basis to have credibility with U.S. consumers. Requiring the U.S. Codex Office agencies to fulfill the TFAA mission of increasing trade, categorically precludes their ability to reject supporting Codex and other international standards for agricultural products that are poorly regulated, de facto self-regulated by industry, or not regulated at all.

The Trump administration decision to reject the NAPA advice is not just another chapter in the administration’s “war on science” and regulation, and its replacement of academic scientists with scientists from the regulated industries. Rather the decision is part of a wide-ranging USDA reorganization that leaves the agency without an Undersecretary for Rural Development, without an Undersecretary for Food Safety and with a mission that serves transnational agribusiness above any other “customer.”