By Karen Perry Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists
It’s fun when little kids put on costumes and pretend to be things they’re not. It’s less fun when high-ranking government officials disguise their true identities and intentions. The Trump administration is rife with officials who pose as public servants but are actually swamp creatures—doing the bidding of various industries, lining their own pockets, or both. It goes right up to the top. But the official I want to talk about during this week of masks and disguises is the administration’s Secretary of Agriculture. George Ervin Perdue III goes by the folksy nickname, “Sonny.” And that’s just the beginning of the façade.
I’ve been studying Secretary Perdue since he arrived at the USDA in 2017, and this much is clear to me: hiding behind his aw-shucks, down-home “Sonny” mask, he routinely advances the interests of big agribusiness over farmers and eaters, sidelines inconvenient science, and defends the president’s every move, no matter how damaging.
Here are five examples—just since last Halloween—of Secretary Perdue pranking farmers and the public:
1. When he destroyed a research agency producing facts he didn’t like. My colleagues and I have written at length about Secretary Perdue’s anti-science war on the USDA’s Economic Research Service, as have the Washington Post, Politico, NBC News, NPR, and…well, you get the point. Perdue has attracted enormous criticism for his move to actually move hundreds of researchers from the DC area to Kansas City in the name of good government, because it’s just so clearly disingenuous. He said it would save money…but an independent analysis shows it will really cost more. He said it would help with staff retention…but then the vast majority of ERS employees quit rather than uproot their lives on short notice. And then acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney pulled the mask off the whole thing—gleefully recounting, at a Republican fundraiser in August, what a great way this has been to eliminate government employees. Easier than firing them! And now ERS (along with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, similarly dismantled), can no longer carry out their mission, which has included research on climate change, food insecurity, and other topics the Trump administration doesn’t like to talk about. (Trick or treat? Trick, definitely.)
2. That time he acted like a (very unscientific) meteorologist. In a June interview with CNN, Perdue pretended not to know the difference between climate and weather. “It rained yesterday, it’s a nice pretty day today,” he said, inanely. Adding insult to injury, he went on: “I think the President feels that I do, he’s a golfer, so sometimes he knows he gets rained out and sometimes it doesn’t, but the long term consequences, I don’t know,” Perdue said. The thing is, Perdue has actually studied science, having trained as a veterinarian, so he really should know. (Trick or treat? Oh yeah, totally, trick.)
3. The ways he sought to bury or downplay climate science. As a Politico investigation unearthed over the summer, Perdue has suppressed climate-related research by USDA scientists, refusing to publicize studies on topics ranging from the impact of climate change on nutrient runoff in the Mississippi River and the Chesapeake Bay, to the effect of higher CO2 levels on the quality of certain grasses that cattle graze on. In one case, USDA officials not only withheld their own prepared release about a study on climate change and the nutritional quality of rice, but tried to prevent university research partners from publicizing the findings as well. Moreover, Perdue reportedly buried a planon how the department should respond to climate change, and on his watch, the USDA is spending a pittance—less than 1 percent of its budget—helping farmers adapt. This is bad because climate change is already hitting agriculture hard (just ask farmers in Ohio), and it’s only going to get worse. Sonny’s climate science shenanigans have been alarming enough that the USDA’s independent watchdog has just opened an investigation of the matter. (Trick or treat? Sidelining the science and solutions farmers need is undoubtedly a trick.)
4. When he hosted a…revealing…podcast interview. Earlier this fall, Secretary Perdue announced he was starting a podcast to feature conversations “about the issues facing America’s farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters today.” The first Friday of every month, the secretary will speak to various agriculture experts…or so I presumed. But who did he choose for the very first conversation? A farmer? An agricultural scientist? No and no. His inaugural episode starred none other than former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a person with no food or agriculture expertise (unless you count being thrown out of a restaurant). She was there, apparently, to gush about “President Trump’s affection for American farmers,” making the interview little more than a praise-the-leader session. Like it was a cabinet meeting or something. (Trick or treat? See if you can get through the whole interview, then you judge.)
5. The time he yukked it up at farmers’ expense. As the Trump administration’s trade war has dragged on, dragging farmers down with it, you’d think the secretary of agriculture would show some empathy. So imagine farmers’ surprise when they heard Perdue tell this joke, back in August at a farm show in Minnesota: “What do you call two farmers in a basement? A whine cellar.” (Trick or treat? It didn’t go over well, so I’m gonna say trick.)