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Trump’s Pick for Ag Secretary Has ‘Bigly’ Ties to Big Ag and Big Food

In announcing his pick last week for Secretary of Agriculture, Trump heaped predictable praise on Sonny Perdue, promising that the former governor of Georgia will “deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land."

We predict that Perdue will indeed deliver “big” results—but he’ll deliver them to his friends in Big Food and Big Ag, not to America’s rural farmers, and surely not to America’s consumers.

If it’s true that you can judge a man by the company he keeps, well, judge for yourself whose side Perdue is really on. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), that multi-billion-dollar lobbying group that represents Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Coca-Cola, General Mills (you get the picture) rushed to praise Perdue’s nomination. In a statement, GMA’s president said her group “looks forward to working with [Perdue] on issues key to keeping America's food the safest and most affordable food supply in the history of the world.”  Coming from the GMA, leader of the charge to keep labels off GMO foods, we know that “safest and most affordable food” is code for “industrial chemical GMO food.” 

And by now, we also all know that Perdue, who was named 2009 Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, counts both Monsanto  and Coca-Cola  among his many corporate campaign donors. 

What else do we know about Perdue? Here are some not-so-fun facts:

•    Perdue hails from Georgia, which leads the country in poultry production, most of which comes from factory farms. Although he’s not related to the founders of Perdue Farms, Perdue helped the giant chicken-producing factory farm business expand its Georgia operations by $155 million. That might explain, as Grubstreet points out, why the National Chicken Council, which lobbies on behalf of the poultry industry, can’t wait for Perdue to be confirmed.

•    A former fertilizer salesman, Perdue at one time owned Houston Fertilizer and Grain which, after its acquisition of Milner Milling Co., morphed into AGrowStar, a grain business with operations across Georgia and South Carolina. His supporters cite his business operations as proof that he’s qualified to lead the USDA. They fail to mention the role chemical fertilizers play in water pollution and global warming, much less the cost to farmers of relying on synthetic inputs instead of regenerative practices which rely on organic composting and that improve both crop yields and soil health, without the pollution side effects.

•    Perdue has a degree in veterinarian medicine which, coupled with his professed disdain for regulations that he deems “unfriendly” to farmers, means he’s more likely to overlook (or overturn) existing regulations requiring veterinarians to cut back on the use of antibiotics in order to  address the current health crisis—antibiotic-resistance—caused by the over-use of antibiotics, especially in animal feed.

•    Perdue is a climate-denier who made headlines in 2007 when he prayed for rain during a drought. Alternet reported that “backed up by a choir singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ accompanied by three Protestant ministers, and twenty demonstrators from the Atlanta Freethought Society, Sonny Perdue, Georgia's Baptist governor, led a crowd of hundreds in prayers for rain.” Not that there’s anything wrong with praying, but how about also acknowledging the role healthy soils play in making crops resistant to drought, and even preventing it in the first place? We probably won’t get that acknowledgement from a man who once said this: “It’s become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

•    Perdue has no qualms about taking government handouts. Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that between 1995 and 2014, he cashed in on $278,679 in taxpayer-funded subsidies for his various businesses. Will he be open to overhauling the current system which doles out $25 billion/year in subsidies (paid out mostly to large producers, not small farmers) for commodity crops, like wheat, GMO corn, GMO cotton and GMO soy? And instead support subsidies for organic and regenerative (and small) farmers who are reducing pollution, producing more nutrient-dense (and pesticide-free) foods while enhancing their soils’ capacity to draw down and sequester carbon? Again, not likely we think, given that Perdue is co-founder of Perdue Partners, a global trading company that specializes in trading goods and services, including commodities, and that he assured Trump that trade will be a big priority for him.

•    Perdue apparently hasn’t made the connection between junk food and health (much less industrial ag and global warming). At a 2003 meeting organized by his wife (then first lady of Georgia) and sponsored by Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A, Perdue praised the soda giant for its “ its continued effort to grow its business presence and invest in Georgia, as the Company prepares to open a $100 million plus expansion to its Atlanta production facilities.”

Before his nomination, Perdue served on Trump’s ag advisory committee whose talking points, as reported on November 15, by Politico, “offer a roadmap on how President-Elect Donald Trump's agriculture secretary could shape agricultural policies, including the sweeping promise to ‘defend American agriculture against its critics,’”. . (emphasis ours).  Of course, what the committee means by “American” agriculture is industrial factory farm and GMO commodity agriculture. And we all know who the committee sees as its critics—that would be us and a host of other groups that advocate for healthy food and a clean environment.

For all the talk about sticking up for rural farmers and rural America, the plain fact is this: Perdue’s track record consistently reveals his support for corporate agribusiness—not small farmers or rural Americans. There are his aforementioned corporate campaign donations. And this—in 2009, Perdue signed a bill that blocked local communities in Georgia from regulating animal cruelty, worker safety and pollution related to factory farms. That’s hardly “looking out” for the little guy.

Given his known (real) priorities, we predict that right out of the gate, Perdue will go after new USDA regulations, passed under the Obama Administration in December 2016, that are designed to “expand small farmers’ ‘protections against the most egregious retaliatory practices’ used by big chicken companies like Tyson.” Those rules can’t go into effect until a 60-day comment period has passed—which gives Perdue plenty of time to quash them in order to protect his state’s $39-billion factory farm chicken industry. If he does go after the new regulations, it will be his way of confirming his support for the highly profitable Tyson-type corporations—not small farmers who currently suffer, financially and otherwise, under a system that is titled in favor of big corporations.

If confirmed, Perdue will oversee a budget of more than $140 billion and a staff of more than 100,000 people in an office that, as Civil Eats points out, executes “policy in a wide variety of areas, including food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, and nutrition. The agency oversees the national school lunch program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as food safety and farm policy programs, the Forest Service, and various land and water conservation efforts.”

And of course, Perdue will play a key role in negotiating the 2018 farm bill.

We’d love to see Perdue really support rural farmers and Americans, by supporting the farmers who are farming in a responsible way. But as Naomi Klein said, the Trump cabinet is a “corporate coup d’état. Perdue, from all appearances, fits right in with the rest of the millionaire and billionaire corporate cronies tapped by Trump to run the country. The last time he ran for governor, in 2006, financial statements showed he was worth about $6 million and his businesses about $2.8 million, according to Politico.

Perdue may have impressed Trump by showing up for his job interview wearing a backpack and a tie with little tractors on it.  But most farmers are smart enough to see through Perdue's phony concern for rural farmers, no matter how he dresses it up.  And it will sure take a lot more than that to convince us that Perdue will support the real future of agriculture—which is organic and regenerative.

Please call your Senators and ask them to reject Sonny Perdue for USDA secretary of agriculture.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. Like this article? Sign up for OCA’s weekly online newsletter.