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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Strong

Bad Move—USDA Moved to Kansas City—Pushing Science Further from Policy and Power

There have been so many failures in leadership from President Trump, too many to list here, but let's just share the top few. He has fanned the flames of white nationalism, showing no signs of leadership in face of murder of George Floyd et al, rolled back critical measures to protect the environment, proposed deep cuts to SNAP as well as cuts to Health and Human Services funding by $9.5 billion, including a 15 percent cut of $1.2 billion to the CDC and a $35 million decrease to the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund's annual contribution. And the latest sign of his blinding narcissism—demanding no face coverings at the Republican convention. And we still have to worry about getting this sorry excuse for a human out of the White House? We need a new normal for sure.

But a while ago a little reported move of two USDA's agencies took place. I was asked to cover this move for a website I had not written for previously, but the editors decided not to run the story because they felt it was too one sided and killed it. I disagreed. I thought it was a well-reported and evenly reported, so I am printing it below.

Bad Move.

A controversial relocation of two USDA units may delay important food and agricultural research and impact child nutrition and food assistance programs.

By Andrea Strong

In June 2019, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans to relocate two USDA units—the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) offices—from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.

Perdue defended the relocation of the two agricultural agencies—which fund crop science, study the economics of farming and food assistance, and forecast the effects of food trends, environmental changes, and trade policy on rural America—as a way to cut costs and bring the agency closer to America’s farmers, making research more relevant.

But the hasty move has drawn criticism from concerned scientists, researchers and economists who argue that6 it will be more costly to taxpayers and will put distance between evidence-based science and policy.

“The relocation estimate was sloppy and did not take into account the cost of lost research, which is harder to quantify in dollars,” said Rebecca Boehm, PhD, an Economist in the Food and Environment Unit of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is widely believed that this move was aimed at silencing researchers and diminishing the role of science in government policymaking.”

The USDA claims that moving ERS and NIFA to the Kansas City area would save taxpayers nearly $300 million, but, strikingly, an analysis by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association, a professional organization of economists, found that the move could actually result in a cost to taxpayers of $83 million to $182 million, largely because of the lost value of research resulting from employee attrition.

Indeed, the move has resulted in mass agency flight. The Union estimates that of 180 employees who were assigned to relocate, 141 declined. Around two-thirds of ERS positions are vacant. So far in fiscal 2019, non-retirement departures from the agency have more than doubled on an annualized basis compared to the previous three-year average, according to data collected by employees.

According to Politico, six of the economists — made up of specialists in the agricultural economy, farm taxation and food programs with more than 50 years of combined experience at ERS — left the agency at the end of April out of frustration with the relocation process or in some cases suspicion about Perdue’s efforts to reshape USDA’s research wing.

Andrew Crane-Droesch, a former research economist with the ERS, left his job after news of the move was announced. He is now a data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Health Care System and says the relocation was a poorly veiled attempt to get rid of experienced scientists and researchers. “We didn’t need to sit next to a cornfield to analyze agricultural policy, and Perdue knew that. He wanted researchers to quit their jobs,” he said in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post.

In his Op-Ed, Crane-Droesch described agencies that have virtually been gutted: “All of the people who study genetically modified organisms left. The team that studies patent law and innovation is gone. Experts on trade and international development, farm finance and taxes all left. Many people transferred to other agencies in the USDA, where they’ll help implement programs, but will no longer have a mandate to produce the essential research that’s needed for sound policymaking. The publishing staff all left, delaying dozens of reports on subjects from veterans’ diets to organic foods. Projects that have been years in the making, on issues from honeybees to potentially harmful herbicides, will never see the light.”

While disturbing, the relocation is not all that surprising; The Trump Administration has been waging a steady war on science, removing researchers from the halls of power, notoriously neutering the EPA by staffing it with ex-coal executives and excluding tenured scientists from critical meetings on environmental policy and regulations.

“The recent move to Kansas City indicates the lengths to which this administration will go to block information that does not support its pro-business agenda,” wrote Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, in a report for World Nutrition. “My guess was that this was the Trump Administration’s way to get political control over an agency of economists and researchers who conduct independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that sometimes leads to inconvenient truths about policies this Administration dislikes.”

Critics agree that the move is a convenient way to stifle research that is inconsistent with the politics of the Trump Administration. Last year, after an economist with the division presented research that contradicted the Trump administration’s views about the president’s signature tax cuts, the Agriculture Department put into effect new rules about submitting work to peer-reviewed journals, requiring scientists and researchers to add disclaimers stating that the findings were “preliminary” and “should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.” The measure was seen as a way of watering down any unflattering data from the department’s own experts.

This fallout will most certainly impact future food policy and legislation. “When you don’t have evidence-based science on hand, there is a void that gets filled with politics and ideologies,” said Boehm. “The public is not usually the beneficiary of those policies. It is usually the special interest groups.”

Programs that affect childhood nutrition and food assistance like Child Nutrition Reauthorization (which affects school lunch), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Woman, Infants and Children (WIC), may suffer the most. “The most important effect of this move will be on food policy and food assistance,” said Crane-Droesch, who points out that ERS research supports SNAP, while the Trump administration does not.

“It’s clear from the 2020 proposed budget that the Trump administration wants to cut SNAP, but ERS produced a report estimating the economic multiplier effect of that program, and how the money cascades through the local economy and that undercut their narratives for cutting this program,” he said.

ERS also published reports finding that the 2017 tax reform led to benefits flowing mostly to rich farmers, which hit a nerve with Trump’s local base who continue to watch big farms are buying little ones. “They can’t tolerate it when scientists present hard truths they don’t like,” said Crane-Droesch.

The move will also impact consumer food safety. “While food safety inspections are performed by a different branch of USDA, longer term research on food safety and issues such as the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity will be hampered,” explained Margaret Zeigler, Executive Director of the Global Harvest Initiative and former deputy director at the Congressional Hunger Center. “What you see with this move is the administration moving away from issues of concern to consumers, such as food safety, climate change, and nutrition, to a focus on farm-level productivity and production issues.”

While the move is now consigned to history books, Democrats on the House Science Committee asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' watchdog, to examine the relocation, including the cost-benefit analysis used to justify the move. “We, along with dozens of stakeholders, have serious concerns that this relocation has generated significant disruptions and will continue to severely disrupt ongoing scientific research while wiping out decades of valuable experience and institutional knowledge,” read the letter, sent by Reps. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, Don Beyer of Virginia, Paul Tonko of New York and Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon as well as Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, chairwoman of the committee’s panel on investigations and oversight.

Researchers and economists following the relocation are hopeful that the GAO review will provide a set of guidelines to be followed in the event of future relocations. “There is confusion about the legality of this move. We hope that the GAO review may explain and provide more information on why this happened,” said Boehm.

For now, the damage is done and will ripple throughout the future of food policy. “ERS was not broken, and did not need fixing,” said Nestle. “This agency produces authoritative, clear, understandable analyses of food and nutrition issues that I and many others rely on for our work. I consider this loss to be incalculable, and nothing less than a national tragedy.”

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