By George Kimbrell
One year down, three to go. Trump and his enablers are hell bent on destroying or selling to the highest bidder the federal agencies they are charged with running in the public interest. In the past year, they have been unrelenting in their attacks on food safety, environmental protections, climate change, government transparency and so many other values we hold dear. We are in the midst of the most significant environmental and public health challenges imaginable. We’re no longer dreading the harm the Trump administration could do to our health and environment—we’re living it.
If you watched the State of the Union address last week, you may have picked out a common thread: gutting regulations—many of them crucial to protecting our food and environment—for the sake of higher corporate profits. Trump’s boast that “we have cut more regulations in our first year than any other administration in history,” may be good if you’re Monsanto or Exxon, but it’s dangerous for you and me and our families.
Let’s take a look back at Trump’s first year in office. What is the State of the Food and Environment Union? Here are just a few (of the many) ways the administration is undermining the food system, public health and the environment.
1. Trump and GMOs
At the wishes of Big Ag and their deep pockets, the Trump administration is keen on approving new GMO plants, fish, insects and animals as fast as possible, with as little oversight as possible. These actions will result in new risks to our food system and environment, not to mention millions more pounds of cancer-causing pesticides poured onto our crops and sprayed near schools, the extinction of native salmon species, the disastrous collapse of pollinators, harm to children and much more.
In two current lawsuits, Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force it to rescind approvals allowing dangerous pesticides to be used in new ways, over-the-top of genetically engineered (GE) crops resistant to them. Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready crops have become obsolete because of “superweeds” resistant to its main ingredient, glyphosate. In response, the chemical companies are peddling new GE crops that can tolerate older, even more toxic herbicides, namely dicamba (produced by Monsanto) and 2,4-D (a chemical compound in “Agent Orange”). The approval and release of these GE crop systems—pesticides and GE seeds resistant to them—will result in hundreds of millions of more pounds of toxic pesticides being sprayed on our food.
Meanwhile, Trump is delaying long-overdue disclosure of all GMO ingredients in foods, required by federal law starting July 2018. Last August, CFS sued and won a case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when missed the first labeling deadline. (The administration immediately relented and complied with the law 12 days later.)
The Trump administration also has delayed new rules for the regulation of GMOs, withdrawing proposed updated regulations late last year, despite being long overdue and urgently needed. This was not an accident: Recently, in a speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation, President Trump declared that he is “streamlining regulations that have blocked cutting-edge biotechnology—setting free our farmers to innovate, thrive, and grow. Oh, are you happy you voted for me. You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.'”
2. Trump and Pesticides
In March, President Trump’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reneged on a proposed ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that’s known to harm kids’ brain development, and chose instead to protect the profits of Dow Chemical, the maker of the pesticide. And in November, a hidden bill being pushed by the pesticide industry was obtained by CFS that would dismantle Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections against deadly pesticides.
Two of Trump’s cabinet nominees—Michael Dourson and Sam Clovis—were so toxic that they were forced to withdraw their nominations instead of being rejected in Congress. At his committee hearing, Dourson’s questionable track record and refusal to commit to recusing himself from working on chemicals he’s been paid by industry to “study” in the past led Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to tell Dourson, “You’re not just an outlier on this science, you’re outrageous in how far from the mainstream of science you actually are. It’s pretty clear you have never met a chemical you didn’t like.”
Sam Clovis withdrew from consideration for Chief Scientist at USDA after being roundly criticized by Congress and the public for being an admitted climate change “skeptic,” saying that climate science is “junk science” and “not proven.” To make matters worse, Clovis has a history of racism, sexism and homophobia.
3. Trump and Food Safety
In March, Trump announced billions in dollars of cuts to USDA and FDA, undermining their ability to keep our food safe. In November, the Trump administration proposed a delay in enforcement of urgently needed rules aimed at keeping produce free from fecal contamination. Contaminated irrigation water is a major cause of foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2006, a major outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to Dole baby spinach was eventually traced back to water contaminated with cattle and wild pig feces. Foodborne illness had become a full-blown epidemic, affecting 1 in 6 Americans.
In response to that and many other foodborne illness outbreaks connected to food such as peanuts, fruit and vegetables, Congress passed the landmark 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which includes requirements that the Food and Drug Administration develop rules governing produce safety, including the water quality used to grow, harvest and pack produce. From 2012-2014, CFS previously challenged FDA’s unlawful delay in drafting and completion of all of FSMA’s six major rule-makings, including the produce rule, succeeding in having all the rules completed by court-ordered deadlines.
The rule allowed growers to phase in water quality and testing requirements between 2018 and 2022, depending in part on the size of the farm. However, now under the new proposed Trump administration delay, growers would not have to test water for E. coli contamination until between 2022 and 2024—11 to 13 years after FSMA’s passage, endangering food safety.
4. Trump and Factory Farms
Many of today’s farms are actually large industrial facilities, not family farms with green pastures and red barns that most Americans imagine. The operation of these factory farms has little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare or food safety, and they often put the health of consumers and rural communities at risk for the sake of profit. Yet, the EPA, the agency charged with protecting our environment and public health, made a third attempt to further delay the hazardous substance release reporting requirements for industrial-scale livestock operations (concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs).
In November, CFS joined other groups to oppose this egregious action that would allow these facilities to keep operating in a way that sees health-harming pollution as status quo. We asked the court to make it clear that EPA’s “preliminary guidance” is illegal because it represents the agency’s third attempt to hide information from the public about CAFO releases of dangerous pollution, particularly ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.
Sonny Perdue, Trump’s pick to head the USDA, is also no stranger to putting people’s health and animal welfare at risk. Earlier this year, inspectors detected bird flu outbreaks in a Tennessee-based poultry breeding operation contracted by Tyson Foods, Inc., the largest chicken meat producer in the U.S. This event demonstrates that confining birds indoors for their entire lives in no way safeguards against disease. The pathogen responsible for bird flu becomes more lethal in large, over-crowded, confined, indoor farming operations like those contracted by food giant Tyson.
Preventing these deadly outbreaks requires reforming how chickens are raised. Strategies implemented by many organic chicken producers, for example—such as access to the outdoors, low densities, and adequate lighting—are necessary to raise chickens and other food animals in the most healthy, safe and sustainable manner.
USDA also is charged with overseeing the National Organic Standards, for labeling organically grown food. Yet rather than taking steps to prevent future outbreaks and ensure higher animal welfare standards for organic, USDA gave in to Big “Organic” Poultry and in December announced plans to withdraw previously finalized organic animal welfare rules that had been the culmination of almost 15 years. Rather than listen to the public who have concerns about public health and animal welfare, USDA sided with large-scale producers who fear the new rules will expose their less-than-organic practices.
5. Trump and Oceans
Livestock and poultry are not the only animals living in factory farm conditions. Our oceans are the new frontier. Commercial fishing and industrial aquaculture are polluting waterways as well as leading some species toward distinction. Despite a 97 percent decline in population, in August the Trump administration denied endangered species status of Pacific Bluefin tuna. It’s not enough for people to stop eating Bluefin tuna; it needs a protected status to prevent it from being fished. The Trump administration would rather side with large-scale fisheries than protect our natural world.
The Gulf of Mexico sees its fair share of pollution resulting in growing annual dead zones from industrial agriculture runoff down the Mississippi River as well as oil spills. Yet, The Trump administration wants to pile on the pollution by allowing factory fish farms in the Gulf, which would be the first time ever for aquaculture in U.S. federal waters, anywhere. Industrial aquaculture will harm Gulf fishing communities and ocean ecosystems.
Last year, CFS filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration for violating our core fisheries and environmental laws in attempting to set up this unprecedented industrial activity in our ocean waters. This is not just happening in the Gulf, but also in the Pacific Northwest. CFS is also in court, in another case filed last year, to stop a commercial shellfish aquaculture permit approved in Washington State by Trump’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the same Army Corps that approved the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline). This irresponsible permit approval would allow a massive expansion of this already large industry, with no protections for wildlife, water quality, ecosystems or people.
Oh, and remember Trump’s GMO “streamlining”? It’s not just plants: the first ever GE animal for food, a genetically engineered salmon is currently under court review. However, that case provided a major win for those of us fighting for transparency and accountability within the Trump administration in late January. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the FDA’s attempt to hide thousands of pages of key government documents revealing how the agency arrived at its controversial approval. The court order rejected the Trump administration’s position that it can unilaterally decide which documents to provide and which to withhold from public and court review.
A broad coalition of commercial and recreational fisheries interests, environmentalists and tribes, led by CFS, challenged the GE salmon approval in 2016. Although FDA considered the application for the GE salmon for nearly two decades, the agency’s record for court review was paltry, including mostly documents already publicly available on their website and only four agency emails. FDA refused to provide thousands of critical documents about how and why it approved the GE salmon.
6. Trump and Climate
One of Trump’s first acts in office was to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. President Trump’s decision to pull out from the 2015 Paris climate agreement was a major setback for the treaty, and for our ability to combat the climate crisis. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest carbon polluter after China.
In March, President Trump signed an Executive Order that drastically rolls back progress made by the Obama administration to tackle the environmental, economic and public health impacts of global climate change. The order specifically set into motion the unravelling of the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to cut pollution from coal-fired power plants and create new jobs in the renewable energy sector. Trump’s coal-focused energy program as outlined in the order will also make it nearly impossible for the U.S. to meet climate solution commitments set by the 2105 Paris agreement.
The Executive Order also revoked the requirement that federal agencies analyze climate change impacts in all their decision-making. If President’s Trump exclamation in his State of the Union address, “we have ended the war on American energy, and we have ended the war on fuel, clean coal” are only the latest signal that his administration’s attacks on our climate and environmental laws are far from over.
Your Voice Has Power
If the first year of the Trump administration is any indication, we clearly have our work cut out for us. The public interest, which should be government’s highest duty, is in exile. Government agencies are being unduly influenced by Big Ag’s lobbying and money, if not simply controlled directly by those doing their bidding, the foxes in the henhouse. Now is when nonprofit organizations are needed more than ever. CFS will continue to watchdog the Trump administration and challenge the agencies that are supposed to oversee our food system. But you are the most important voice for Congress and the Trump administration to hear.
Here are a few important actions you can take right now:
Make sure the Trump administration issues GMO labeling regulations that requires the labeling of ALL GMOs, and does so on food packages, for all Americans, not only through discriminatory and secondary “QR code” smart phone disclosure.
The pesticide industry is pushing a bill that threatens the survival of endangered species. Tell Congress to oppose any legislative attempt to weaken ESA protections for species affected by pesticides!
While Trump’s EPA put corporate profits over public health, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico (D) has introduced a bill that would outlaw chlorpyrifos. The bill is called the Protect Children, Farmers and Farmworkers from Nerve Agent Pesticides Act of 2017 (S. 1624). Tell your senators to protect our kids and ban this toxic pesticide once and for all.
George Kimbrell is the legal director at the Center for Food Safety.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.