Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Since U.S. President Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, he has consistently vowed to significantly reduce federal regulations and spending. Some of the cutbacks he’s proposed since taking office could have far-reaching effects on federal food policy. In late May, Trump released his administration’s 2018 budget proposal, “A New Foundation for American Greatness.” This plan decreases funding for programs traditionally part of the Farm Bill, which could lead to some major food policy fights as legislators work on next fall’s bill.
The biggest cut in this area comes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, said Peter Mueser, an economics professor at the University of Missouri’s Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs. Trump’s budget cuts SNAP by about 29 percent, or US$190 billion, over the next 10 years, primarily by increasing and enforcing the work requirements and transferring more responsibility for funding SNAP to individual states. Mueser said the first change could make it harder for people, especially in high-unemployment areas, to quality for benefits, and the second could give states that aren’t particularly supportive of SNAP an additional incentive to prevent more applicants from receiving assistance.
University of Missouri rural sociology assistant professor Mary Hendrickson, who studies sustainable alternatives to the current food system, said that when it comes to the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s also some concern that conservation and environmental policies might be stripped away. In addition, farmers’ crop and revenue insurance programs could be cut down, according to Politico, which could severely hurt their revenues.
With this administration, Mueser said, “almost everything is open to renegotiation. Trump is cutting things back, but the way he’s doing it is basically cutting around the edges.”
Like most presidential budget proposals, Trump’s will likely never become law, but it shows where the administration’s priorities lie as Congress works on its own version of the federal budget. This is also impactful when it comes to policies that aren’t specifically part of the budget, such as school lunches. In May 2017, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced at an elementary school in Virginia that he would be loosening some of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s landmark standards on sodium, whole grain, sugar, and fruits and vegetables in school lunches.
Hendrickson says it’s also important to pay attention to policies that don’t initially seem food-related. Some of the federal regulations Trump could strip—in areas such as investments, organizing corporations, and antitrust law—could slip under the radar but have deep impacts on farming, the food system, and consumers, according to Hendrickson.
For example, to start a cooperative or a corporation aimed at changing the food system, financial regulations shape the steps that need to be taken. “Investments that we need to make in alternative [food] systems to get them up and going are subject to how you can organize companies in this country,” Hendrickson says.
Hendrickson also said the current administration does not seem poised to enforce the antitrust policies in ways “that would reign in a lot of mergers and acquisitions,” which are especially important in agriculture, she said. “There’s simply not a lot of appetite for that, given our current Supreme Court and our current Department of Justice.”
Makan Delrahim, Trump’s nominee for U.S. assistant attorney general for antitrust, is an experienced conservative antitrust lawyer who was an early supporter of Trump and helped facilitate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch’s confirmation in the Senate. He has signaled a belief that mergers aid competition, rather than reducing it, and he has said he doesn’t intend to pursue antitrust cases against large companies and monopolies unless there’s specific evidence of wrongdoing or abuse of free-market principles.
Delrahim’s philosophy is especially important now, as four of the world’s largest seed and chemical companies are currently discussing mergers: DuPont with Dow Chemical and Monsanto with Bayer, whose chief executives said in January they had a “very productive meeting” with then-President-elect Trump.
When major seed and chemical companies merge, Hendrickson says, they combine their stock and eliminate certain offerings. This consolidation, which leads to loss of diversity in the marketplace, has significant effects on our food system, from both the farmer’s and the consumer’s perspectives.
“The concern is over choice in the marketplace, for farmers,” Hendrickson says. “Where are they going to buy their seeds, and from whom? If farmers don’t have any choice, does that constrain their actions on what kinds of decisions they want to take on the farm level?”
Any time federal cuts take effect, even if they’re not explicitly food-related, people begin to lean on local food banks more, said Janese Silvey, the communications coordinator for the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri. This is because food is not necessarily a fixed cost like rent or childcare, so she said people will try to stretch their food budget before scaling back elsewhere.
“Every time you see cuts to those services, you’re going to feel that at the food pantry,” Silvey said. “The pantries are going to see more demand. Even if we don’t get [federal] funding directly, we feel the effects.”