Uncertain future for US food system

Below is a reproduction of an opinion article that the Board of the Geographies of Food and Agriculture Specialty Group wrote in response to the election of Donald Trump and what this means for food and agriculture systems in the United States.


Despite strong support from rural voters, since President Donald J. Trump entered the White House, he has made almost no direct mention of agriculture, farmers, the Farm Bill, or the countryside.

However, the administration’s efforts to shift global trade, reduce regulation, cut social safety nets, and limit immigration will have wide-reaching repercussions for our society. This means that we pay more at grocery stores or restaurants, our families will get sick from food-borne illnesses, and pollution chokes our water and air. These are issues that affect every single one of us — no matter how you voted on election day — and will be sure to impact regions and states relying on a migrant workforce who support a thriving agriculture industry.

As geographers who study food systems, from production to consumption to waste management, we are extremely distressed by the social and ecological damage resulting from the Trump administration’s current actions, and we foresee more problems on the horizon.

Perhaps the most evident issue is the President’s  promise to eviscerate trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership — now dead in the water — and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although NAFTA has meant manufacturing job losses and is notorious for widespread social and environmental repercussions, merely the threat of a NAFTA repeal or the incorporation of dramatic changes (such as reinstating tariffs for Mexican imports) has U.S.-owned companies and consumers railing against renegotiations. Not only would new tariffs dramatically increase the price for everyday foods imported from Mexico (such as tomatoes and avocados), they would likely harm domestic production for foods we export to Mexico (such as dairy, pork, beef, onions, and corn), if Mexico matched these import tariffs.

Some proponents of a more locally focused food system see cutting trade deals as a win. Shifts toward regional systems are indeed crucial for sustainability in the long run, and one impact of these policy changes may be that distributors and consumers increasingly rely on sources of food closer to home. Yet, while it may seem at first glance that the rejection of trade deals would be a positive change for small-scale producers forced to compete in the global “race to the bottom,” these changes do nothing to address the continued dominance and, indeed, the increasing consolidation of transnational food corporations.

Since neither the Trump administration nor his pick for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, a former manager of a global agribusiness trading company, is expected to prioritize the voices of small-scale farmers over corporate interests, we must wonder what benefits this new approach will have for family farms and rural America? This is particularly alarming when coupled with the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental and ethical protections, and in light of Perdue’s reputation as an anti-regulation climate change denier. Famous for hosting a public prayer for rain (http://politics.blog.ajc.com/2017/01/10/that-time-sonny-perdue-prayed-for-rain/) in response to a Georgia drought, as governor, Perdue promoted the growth of unregulated chicken factories in his state at the expense of public health and animal welfare (http://www.grubstreet.com/2017/01/5-reasons-experts-worry-about-trumps-agriculture-secretary.html).

Trump’s anti-immigrant positions, in addition to being broadly xenophobic and unjust, will also have direct implications for food and agriculture in the U.S. Immigrants are the backbone of the food system — not just in the fields, but also in packing, processing, retail, and service. During his first week in office, President Trump ordered a major overhaul of immigration law enforcement, and as many as 8 million undocumented people could be targeted for deportation.

Yet undocumented immigrants make up about 80 percent of the agricultural workforce. Agricultural labor is physically challenging work, and in most states, workers do not have basic labor law protections, such as minimum wage and overtime pay. Periods of immigration crackdowns in recent years have left crops unharvested to rot in the fields (http://www.grubstreet.com/2017/01/5-reasons-experts-worry-about-trumps-agriculture-secretary.html). Ultimately, the only ethical solution to the linked issues of agriculture and immigration is to ensure secure livelihoods for workers, regardless of their citizenship status, and to protect the unqualified rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

These are steep challenges and the stakes are high. Yet if we realize that the food system can be a powerful tool for reshaping society, economy and environment, we can turn this moment of crisis into an opportunity.

The 2018 Farm Bill will be contentious but, with concerted effort, it could prove an effective pressure point. Highlighting the inequities of the agribusiness agenda as it materializes can produce new and unlikely coalitions. Immigrant farm workers, rural smallholders, indigenous peoples and urban foodies, for example, could all be negatively affected by the current administration’s agenda. A movement unified around food is capable of cultivating not only a reasonable Farm Bill but also a more socially just and ecologically sustainable future for all.