Typically overshadowed by topics like foreign policy, national security, taxes and healthcare, food and farm issues never seem to get equal time during a presidential election, even though they play an integral part in many of those other matters. This election cycle is proving to be no different.
A food industry issue did grab some headlines, although only for a few days, in mid-September. The Trump campaign circulated a fact sheet suggesting the candidate would roll back food safety regulations, including the "food police" at the FDA. It claimed some of the inspection and enforcement powers of FDA are burdensome and "overkill." But when questioned about it, the campaign office removed the mention from its website, according to Associated Press, and did not respond to requests for more information.
There are plenty of other food-related issues.
A two year rulemaking process is under way for labeling food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The FDA needs more funding to begin enforcement of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Net farm income is less than half of what it was three years ago, causing deteriorating credit conditions among agricultural producers, and a new farm bill reauthorization is on the horizon. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule remains unresolved.
But neither Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, nor Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has discussed at length what they would do as president to address some of these concerns.
“Unfortunately, agriculture and food issues have never risen to the top of these debates,” explained Dan Glickman, a former Secretary of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton and a supporter of the Clinton campaign. “There’s a limited amount of time, and the media tends to focus on the wild and crazy, but it would be nice for someone to ask the question about the role of food and agriculture as part of our economic issues.”
Our role in the global economy
Meanwhile, the candidates have had much to say about trade and immigration, which are two critical issues for the food industry.
Maintaining strong export markets and creating new market access opportunities for American goods is hugely important for food and agriculture, but neither candidate has offered favorable remarks on the matter. Although Clinton has been mostly pro-trade throughout her public career, during this campaign she has voiced reservations about trade agreements saying they should only be supported when they “create jobs, raise wages and advance our national security.”
Trump, on the other hand, has been more strident about his desire to negotiate tough positions on behalf of the U.S. and making sure other countries abide by the rules, especially when it comes to China.
“Clearly, Trump has made a big issue about trade enforcement and I think he’s absolutely right in that regard,” commented Randy Russell, a longtime food and agriculture lobbyist with experience in both the executive and legislative branches of government.
“The huge trade imbalance we have with the Chinese is an issue.”
That fact is not lost on the current administration, which recently filed a complaint against China in the World Trade Organization (WTO) for violating its commitments under the rules. Trump has gone a bit further to suggest that under his watch the U.S. might leave the WTO altogether.
“It makes you wonder what our role will be in the global economy if we don’t reach out and form foreign trade partnerships,” stated Tom Stenzel, the president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Assn., the trade group that represents the fresh produce industry.
Specifically, both have come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that still awaits congressional action. The Obama administration negotiated the agreement with 11 other countries that represent 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, and most of the agriculture industry supports it.
“Effective trade policies are absolutely necessary if we are going to be competitive with other nations that are more than happy to fill this need,” explained Barry Carpenter, the president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute. “We hope the new president will help us move TPP forward.”
If Congress fails to act, the U.S. will risk losing preferential market access in the Asia-Pacific region compared to competitor nations. An American Farm Bureau Federation analysis predicts that TPP will add $5.3 billion to net U.S. agricultural exports by reducing and eliminating existing tariff and non-tariff trade barriers.
“We’ll continue to push for it because on balance it’s good for our industry,” added David Carlin, the senior vice president of legislative affairs and economic policy at the International Dairy Foods Assn., while noting that it is not unusual for candidates to say negative things about trade and then be more open once in office.
Another issue that many in the food and farm industries hope the candidates will be open to once in office is immigration reform. For years there has been a stalemate on what to do and how to do it, and bills have languished in Congress to address some of the pressing needs of both security and a low-skill/low-cost labor force.