One somewhat under-the-radar issue has united dozens of groups from all around the country.
These groups, including various scientist organizations, environmentalists, minority rights activists, farmer cooperatives, and research groups, all have joined together to plead with Congress to take action. The issue that’s brought them together? Saving the USDA’s scientists.
In August of 2018, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue announced reorganizations proposals to the department he heads. One of the most startling was a decision to outright move two vital scientific organizations—the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—out of Washington, DC, and to…a place as yet to be determined. The ERS is responsible for figuring out stuff like farm income, how trade deals affect farmers, what food sales are doing, and, overall, what the economic outlook is for the agricultural industry. NIFA is mostly concerned with agricultural innovation, giving grants and doing research on next-gen farming techniques and equipment.
Perdue’s reasoning for the move is maddeningly vague; the announcement said “there will be significant savings” from the move, without explaining how or why or how much. It also suggests that it would be beneficial to move these researchers closer to farmland, though how that’s possible, given that the ERS and NIFA are supposed to be working closely with policymakers, is unclear.
On top of that, the Trump administration had already proposed dramatic cuts to the ERS, suggesting that a dramatic and literal move of the agency would not be especially concerned with its ability to do its job. The ERS has been a nonpartisan and fact-based thorn in the Trump administration’s side, rebuking the president’s incorrect statements about, just for example, the cost of the food stamp program and the effects of older trade deals on farmers. Seemingly in response, the Trump administration first tried to slash, and now is trying to simply move, a vital source of agricultural research.
This week, over a hundred incredibly varied groups, ranging from the American Heart Association to the Idaho Barley Commission to the University of California, signed a letter begging Congress not to allow the USDA to uproot these research groups. These groups fear that moving the entire departments is an effort to further separate science from policymakers, and at the same time to effectively gut them.
The USDA’s original press release says, “Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most.” Many who depend on the research produced by the ERS and NIFA fear that a move like this will result in large numbers of resignations; many people won’t want to move themselves and their families to go wherever Perdue decides to place their jobs. It could be, in effect, a soft method to destroy agricultural research.
Write the signees: “The USDA proposal has the potential to reverse the significant progress your subcommittees have made in recent years to revitalize agricultural research, education, extension, and economics. Consequently, we believe that preventing the proposal from moving forward is in the best interest of American food and agricultural research, and the millions who depend on it.”
This isn’t just moving offices; this is a concerted effort to minimize the impact of science on the food we grow and eat.