USDAresearch blocked

Jul. 2, 2019

With a budget of just over $1 billion, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service — known as ARS — is often referred to as “one of the best kept secrets” in the sprawling department because of its outsize impact on society. The agency has pioneered a variety of major breakthroughs, from figuring out how to mass produce penicillin so it could be widely used during World War II to coming up with creative ways to keep sliced apples from browning, and has for decades been at the forefront of understanding how a changing climate will affect agriculture.

Unfortunately, Trump administration officials are essentially choosing to ignore or downplay findings that don’t align with the administration’s agenda and denial of climate change.

“We were trying to take science and make it real and actionable for farmers,” said Robert Bonnie, who served as undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at USDA during the Obama administration. “If you’re taking a certain block of research and not communicating it, it defeats the purpose of why USDA does the research in the first place.”

The ARS is not addressing the cause of climate change, but provides practical research and analysis on the impact of climate change on agriculture, predicting, coping and mitigating the effects of excess carbon in the atmosphere and changes in climate patterns.

In the first three years of Bush’s second term, for example, USDA promoted research on how farmers can change their tilling practices to reduce carbon being released into the atmosphere, a look at how various farm practices help capture carbon into soil, and a forecast on how rising CO2 levels would likely affect key crops. The communications office highlighted work showing that using switchgrass as a biofuel in lieu of ethanol could store more carbon in soil, which would not only mitigate greenhouse gas emissions but also boost soil health. Healthy soils are an excellent carbon sink.

Several earlier studies had already shown that rice loses protein, zinc and iron under the elevated CO2 levels that scientists predict for later this century, raising potentially serious concerns for hundreds of millions of people who are highly dependent on rice and already at risk of food insecurity. This latest study by ARS and its academic partners around the world had confirmed those previous findings and — for the first time — found that vitamins can also drop out of rice in these conditions. This is information that farmers need to know.

Among the recent ARS studies that did not receive publicity from the Agriculture Department are:

  • A 2017 finding that climate change was likely to increase agricultural pollution and nutrient runoff in the Lower Mississippi River Delta, but that certain conservation practices, including not tilling soil and planting cover crops, would help farmers more than compensate and bring down pollutant loads regardless of the impacts of climate change.
  • A January 2018 finding that the Southern Plains — the agriculture-rich region that stretches from Kansas to Texas — is increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, from the crops that rely on the waning Ogallala aquifer to the cattle that graze the grasslands.
  • An April 2018 finding that elevated CO2 levels lead to “substantial and persistent” declines in the quality of certain prairie grasses that are important for raising cattle. The protein content in the grass drops as photosynthesis kicks into high gear due to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a trend that could pose health problems for the animals and cost ranchers money.
  • A July 2018 finding that coffee, which is already being affected by climate change, can potentially help scientists figure out how to evaluate and respond to the complex interactions between plants, pests and a changing environment. Rising CO2 in the atmosphere is projected to alter pest biology, such as by making weeds proliferate or temperatures more hospitable to damaging insects.
  • An October 2018 finding, in conjunction with the USDA Forest Service, that climate change would likely lead to more runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed during certain seasons.
  • A March 2019 finding that increased temperature swings might already be boosting pollen to the point that it’s contributing to longer and more intense allergy seasons across the northern hemisphere. “This study, done across multiple continents, highlights an important link between ongoing global warming and public health—one that could be exacerbated as temperatures continue to increase,” the researchers wrote.

“Why in the hell is the U.S., which is ostensibly the leader in scientific research, ignoring this?” said one USDA scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the possibility of retaliation. “It’s not like we’re working on something that’s esoteric….we’re working on something that has dire consequences for the entire planet. You can only postpone reality for so long,” the researcher added.

And now, to add insult to injury, the Trump administration is relocating USDA scientists to Kansas City. What the government calls “directed reassignments” to a different city are “very rare in the federal government. That's not something that is a common practice,” said Joanna Friedman, a federal employment lawyer with the Federal Practice Group. “This is unprecedented.” These scientists must relocate their families or be fired.

“The current and projected attrition will curtail research data products that encompass commodity estimates, agricultural sector forecasts, food and farm economic and statistical indicators for U.S. agriculture, conservation, and food policy and markets,” said Kevin Hunt, a 10-year USDA employee, speaking as acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3403 representing research service staff.

This forced move will cause a brain drain on a world-class, world-renown research organization because many of these scientists will be resigning. The impact on the future of agriculture and food security is immeasurable. When Trump won the election, I optimistically did not think he could cause the chaos that is resulting, especially in the area of climate change and environment. I was woefully wrong. This repression of research, denying pragmatic facts and evidence to enforce an ignorant agenda, cannot continue. Our future depends upon truth, political will and action.