What Would Censorship of the USDA Mean for America?
We reached out to food policy experts to find out what they made of this turn of events—and what the USDA’s flip flop means about transparency for the American public.
Turns out, a hell of a lot can happen over the course of 24 hours.
Early Monday morning, the US Department of Agriculture sent out an email to staff members at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)—the agency's primary in-house research arm—informing the nearly 3,000 employees that they were henceforth barred from relaying information to the public.
The department-wide email—which was first reported by BuzzFeed News and later by many other outlets including The Washington Post, The Independent, Mother Jones, and Scientific American—read as follows: "Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents.This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content."
It seemed the new mandate explicitly banned a taxpayer-funded federal agency from publicly disclosing information regarding projects and data that were directly funded by that very same public. That is, until 24 hours later when the USDA called the move a "misunderstanding" and walked away from the policy, stating it "is hereby rescinded."
Although it's to be expected that an incoming administration will seek to minimize or eliminate the amount of public information executive departments release that pertains to politically charged policies—especially those enacted by the outgoing administration—raw scientific data and verifiable fact have never been barred from being disseminated to the public. In fact, Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Scientific American, "The USDA scientific integrity policy states that political appointees or any other employees cannot interfere with dissemination of scientific research results. This includes not just scientific publications, but also other ways of communicating with the public that are more accessible and have a broader reach."
What's going on here? Is a hold on information coming out of an executive agency standard operating procedure during a presidential transition period—or is this a gag on scientific discourse?
The USDA most certainly isn't the only agency to face newfound and wholly startling scrutiny and censorship. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others have all been given a mandate of silence, censorship, and political oversight to varying degrees.
MUNCHIES reached out to a number of food policy experts to find out what they made of this turn of events—and what the USDA's flip flop means about the access the American public and the scientific community worldwide will have to federal governmental research regarding food and agriculture.
But first, we asked the USDA for a final word on where they stood. A spokesperson from the Agency told us, "On Jan. 23, USDA issued interim operating guidelines outlining procedures to ensure the new policy team has an opportunity to review policy-related statements, legislation, budgets and regulations prior to issuance. This guidance, similar to procedures issued by previous administrations, was misinterpreted by some to cover data and scientific publications. This was never the case; those data and scientific publications are not covered by the interim operating procedures."
But most of the experts we spoke to aren't convinced that the agency's behavior under Trump's governance is just business as usual.
Although several pointed out that a temporary halt in communications—especially policy-driven reports—is par for the course when there is a turn over from one president to another, they see something different at work here. Carolyn Dimitri, director of the Food Studies PhD Program at New York University and a former employee at the USDA Economic Research Service, told MUNCHIES: "I think this is standard operating practice for a change in administration, although I have never heard such a loud public proclamation reading clearance of publications (but it is in keeping with the blustery tone of this administration)."
Dimitri added that the real question remains: How will Sunny Perdue, Trump's pick as Ag Secretary, proceed, if he is confirmed? "The bigger question is how much influence the new secretary will have on what is published in the future," Dimitri said. The former governor of Georgia has historically pushed for looser regulations in agribusiness, fought against the enforcement of environmental initiatives, and expressed skepticism toward climate change. (He once wrote in the National Review that "liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.")
Marion Nestle, food policy expert and Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, agrees. She told MUNCHIES, "My understanding is that this is standard practice during a change in administration, although this particular edict seems to have been announced in a particularly crude way, now overturned. What remains to be seen is what happens next."
Other experts were far more inflamed by the USDA's announcement and retraction. Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wrote: "It is an outrage. Given this administration's apparent penchant for 'alternative facts,' it is not unreasonable to expect that these gag orders will be followed up by 'alternative science.' This is an attack on science. It is an attack on the public's right to know. And most of all a test of congressional leadership. Who in the leadership is willing to tell the new Administration that this is not how government serves the public?"
Amy Bentley, another professor at NYU's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, also sees the USDA's recent statements as a threat: "My reaction is that it is the new administration's attempting to prevent career staff scientists or researchers from releasing information that contradicts their political goals."
Bentley is concerned that the Trump administration is intent on "furthering the interests of Big Ag and putting the damper on research on organics, for example." She acknowledges that during a presidential transition, regrouping of federal agencies, but this, she says, "feels ominous and qualitatively different."
But now that the USDA has stepped back from its initial statement, shouldn't we all just chill? Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, says that he is "not reassured" by the USDA's attempt to "walk back the Sharon Drumm memo": "This administration's contempt for science is unprecedented, as seen in the appointment of climate change denialists to head USDA (Sonny Perdue) and EPA (Scott Pruitt), and reports that it ordered EPA to take down its climate change webpage. The Trump administration needs to understand that the American public will not stand for suppression of science."
Some experts pointed to Trump's behavior during his campaign and said it left them uneasy about the future of scientific research under this administration, thereby coloring their reaction to the USDA statements.
Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, told MUNCHIES that we should remember that this research is paid for with tax dollars, and thus should be conducted for the interests of the public: "This is a step backwards in transparency for work that's done with public dollars. These are our civil servants—we, the public, pays for this research. Modern democracy depends on the transparency of civil servants, and the advancement of science depends upon open and informed debate. These heavy-handed actions by the Trump administration must be vigorously opposed."
But how would the curtailing of information out of the ARS and the USDA affect American families? Wenonah Hauter, executive director at Food & Water Watch, said, "Prohibiting USDA from releasing factual information about the work that it does will undermine public confidence in our government, and unnecessarily limit what people know about the food they feed their families."
Whether the USDA's recent announcements were merely business as usual or an ominous signal of things to come, every food policy expert we reached out to would likely agree with Ann Thrupp, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, who told us: "It is clear that there is a fair amount of confusion regarding the intent of the memo. We do know, however, that the USDA's responsibility is to release high-quality, unbiased, peer-reviewed research for the public benefit. We, along with many others in the research community, will be watching to ensure that data regarding critical issues like climate change and environmental sustainability is not suppressed."
Now all we can do is wait and see.