If my readership is anything like myself, you probably spent the last week in alternate states of disbelief and real panic over the election of Donald J. Trump as next US President. Enough analyses have been written about how we got here and what some of the more momentous impacts on a global scale might be in a worst case scenario (including on global warming, nuclear proliferation, the spread of terrorism and the world economy), so I won’t go into those dystopian scenarios. I also applaud my American friends for quickly finding the spirit to mobilize against potential restrictions on domestic civil rights (particularly of women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants and the media). I encourage everyone to watch this John Oliver segment on ways to resist the normalization of Trump and the views of some of his key advisers (such as Steve Bannon), including specific organizations to support. I wish I could help with more than donations and the sharing of information.
What I want to talk about here, though, are the wider implications of a Trump presidency onto domestic and global food politics (which this space is ostentatiously for), and how we can might avoid negative consequences for our food system.
The beat of Trump’s drum is ‘deregulation’, and the majority of Republicans are marching to it. Thus, policies that are advancing healthy food on school menus, as well as the food stamp program (which House Speaker Paul Ryan vocally opposes) might be curtailed in a Trump administration. Furthermore, he has previously said he wants to eliminate “the FDA food police” with its “inspection overkill“, which could significantly endanger food safety in US production systems. In industrialized food production, particular meat production in concentrated animal feeding operations, there is an enormous risk for the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, including antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Lowering oversight in this area could have disastrous consequences on, for instance, salmonella, e.coli, or even avian flu outbreaks. Countries that import American goods might have to step up their own food safety import regulations to avoid endangering their own people.
Another Trump battle cry has been the increase of border security and the deportation of illegal immigrants – he has previously advocated for sending up to 11 million immigrants back to their home countries. This policy, if implemented, could have momentous impacts for the agricultural labor supply of the United States. It has been estimated that 26% of permanent farmworkers and up to half of seasonal labor are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. When Georgia tightened its immigration law in 2010, crops rotted in the fields and prisoners had to be dispatched to aid in the harvest due to labor shortages. According to estimates, Georgia farmers only filled 40% of their labor demand that year. Thus, imminent nation-wide immigration regulation could lead to a collapse of US fruit and vegetable production, 85% of which are hand-picked by farm workers. A 2014 analysis estimated that Trump’s policy could lead to a three percent reduction in grain production; a 27 percent reduction in meat production; a 31 percent drop in vegetable production; and a 61 percent drop in fruit production.
In the long term, as farmers adjust their hiring strategies toward domestic labor, food prices might significantly rise due to adjustments in training costs and wages. In the Georgia example, many nationals weren’t even interested in the back-breaking manual labor. Who would fill those shoes would then be the big question. Maybe Canada’s food exports would see significant demand? Or even Mexico’s?
In his presidential race, Trump also heavily denounced the “swamp” of Washington insiders, lobbyists and cronies vying for influence in the administration. In a sickening turn of events, however, as Elizabeth Warren documents in a scathing letter, his transition team is to a large extent made up of Washington insiders, Wall Street financiers, and plenty of special interest lobbyists – including the leader of the agricultural portfolio transition, Michael Torrey. He is a lobbyist for the American Beverage Association – who are strongly against soda taxes or other public health regulation measures -, the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, the Illinois Soybean Association, the dairy sector, and Little Caesar Enterprises, amongst others. If he appoints key administration personnel according to his special interests, we will see Big Soda, dairy and soy influences in the Department of Agriculture grow – at the very least. It seems safe to say that Big Food lobbying groups will have an easier ear in a Trump administration that in Obama’s.
Trump will also have influence on the Securities and Exchange Commission, which governs the way financial transactions at the stock market are made. After its current head, Mary Jo White, stepped down, there are only two out of the usual five Commission members left, leaving the door open for deregulation of Wall Street. This could increase commodity speculation, which is already at high levels, and heighten food price volatility. The last time a food price crisis occurred in 2007/08, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food found strong reason to believe that it was connected to deregulation in important commodity derivatives markets beginning in 2000, and subsequent entry into markets for derivatives based on food commodities of large, powerful institutional investors such as hedge funds, pension funds and investment banks. This way, American politics might make much further waves, even affecting local market prices for staple goods.
There are other areas where Trump may have significant impacts internationally – notably, he has called for large cutbacks in overseas foreign aid, which would curtail USAID and other NGO’s important work in rural communities around the globe; and of course his commitment to quickly exit the Paris climate treaty spells global disaster if US businesses do not keep their commitments and if the Republicans’ “drill, baby, drill” mentality in the energy sector is made reality. The effects of climate change are already felt in countries around the world, and disproportionally affect the poorer, more marginalized communities, while the Trumps of the world build seawalls around their golf courses.
Ufff. Feeling sick again yet?
While these implications are ominous, allow me to spread a small ray of hope: Today, big decisions are not only made by governments. And that fact, as frustrating it is when your party is in office, is incredibly empowering when it isn’t.
Fact is – I study non-state governance for a living. And what we are starting to see, time and again, is that large corporations arrange themselves with regulations – but what they really do is listen to their customers. Nobody likes a scandal, not politicians, not companies. And what our current generation of global citizens can make is one hell of a scandal. What is more, we can make even more of a stand – on what we buy, how we buy, and most importantly, who we buy from.
Let me take the example of climate change. I was just at a coffee industry event where one speaker caught my ear. She said “now that our government denies climate change, the private sector has to step up to protect itself from serious consequences to its supply chain.” This mere statement made me a bit more hopeful. Companies are waking up – both to the existential threat of climate change and to the opportunities in clean energy. Show them the path.
There are both small and large companies trying to make a difference. Listen to them. As one corporate sustainability leader told me just last week, “we like more competition in sustainability. It just makes us stand out more.” Buy a Tesla. Buy solar panels to become energy independent. Read companies’ sustainability reports. Ask companies how they power their factories. Reward them for the right choice alone. Be serious about going to your farmers’ market and supporting local farmers. Be ready to support your farmers in a really tough period to come if the labor upheaval happens. Eat meat from a farm you trust and who take food safety seriously. Ask questions. Don’t stop until you get real answers. And make your decisions based on them.
The challenges have never been bigger, the political obstacles never looming higher, but we need to step up now, for real, for us and for the next generations. I will be beside you, making my small contribution in getting the word out and making the right decisions, now in the face of, as opposed to alongside politics. Let the struggle begin.
P.S. If you want to take responsible purchasing one step further – this is an updated list of all companies and brands that are associated with or have endorsed Trump, and which the #GrabYourWallet campaign is suggesting to boycott. Make your own decisions.