USDA under fire amid tension over relocation and climate work

Democrats on Thursday took aim at the department's actions under the Trump administration.

Water pools in rain-soaked farm fields on May 29, 2019 near Gardner, Illinois. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Water pools in rain-soaked farm fields on May 29, 2019 near Gardner, Illinois. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lawmakers are ramping up their scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) amid growing concerns over censorship of climate research, after a new report revealed a sweeping department climate plan was buried during the first year of the Trump administration.

The news adds to an ongoing controversy regarding the relocation of some USDA jobs away from Washington, D.C., which some have criticized as a means of weeding out scientists through an effective brain drain.

That heightened attention marks a shift for the department, which has not generated the same controversy as the Interior Department (DOI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration. But that is changing, as conversations grow about the role agriculture plays in contributing to — and suffering from — climate change, coupled with a number of growing disputes about the agency’s work and relocation to Kansas City, which straddles the border between Missouri and Kansas.

Questions about the department’s approach to science dominated much of a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Thursday morning, which came only hours after Politico reported that the USDA had buried a sweeping climate plan during the first year of President Donald Trump’s tenure.


That plan outlined how USDA could help the agriculture industry adapt to global warming. Top officials, however, reportedly chose not to release the report and kept it for internal use only. That revelation comes following heightened awareness of USDA’s role in suppressing climate research, primarily through burying reports.

Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and other Democrats, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), pushed USDA’s chief scientist Scott Hutchins to explain the department’s actions. But the official asserted repeatedly that there is no effort at USDA to downplay climate science, calling the department’s climate work “expansive and robust.”

Notably, however, the Trump administration abandoned an Obama-era executive order requiring agencies to plan for climate change, something USDA has pointed to in explaining the agency’s shift away from publicizing such research.

Lawmakers argued that such moves have dire implications. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), a presidential contender, raised concerns over USDA’s behavior around climate reports at a time when farming areas are increasingly grappling with disasters.

“Can you elaborate on how the department determines which types of research assignments to publicize?” she asked Hutchins, who argued again that USDA is not intentionally burying research.

Democratic senators also homed in on the relocation, which has generated uproar from employees.

“The Administration is forcing out its employees with rushed and politically-calculated ultimatums designed to derail important [agricultural research],” asserted Stabenow, as she addressed Hutchins.


USDA announced in June that workers with USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would have until July 15 to decide whether to relocate to Kansas City and report there by Sept. 30. As of this week, at least 63% of employees have said they will leave the department rather than relocate — that represents approximately two-thirds of USDA’s research staff. That loss confirms the brain-drain concerns critics of the move had raised, with major implications for institutional knowledge.

Hutchins, who previously spent three decades working for a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company, weathered criticism over the relocation from Democrats while insisting that the move will lower costs and bring USDA closer to the areas it regulates. The official touted the benefits of the move while downplaying the blow to USDA by arguing that the shift “will enhance these agencies in the longterm.”

The mounting scrutiny aimed at USDA has also been fueled by increasing attention to the role agriculture plays in contributing to climate change. The Green New Deal proposal introduced in February was inaccurately panned by opponents as banning “farting cows,” but that blueprint for swiftly decarbonizing the economy does correctly note that agriculture generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. Overhauling the sector would likely be part of any sweeping national climate plan and face pushback from the agriculture industry.

Meanwhile, disasters that scientists have linked to climate change are taking a toll on U.S. farmland. Historic flooding in the Midwest and South this year has already devastated farmers, with hurricanes similarly impacting agriculture in states like North Carolina.

And those trends come as agriculture also faces mounting global challenges. A study published Thursday by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the U.N., among others, highlights that the industry will need to change dramatically in order to both combat climate change and feed the planet. Those shifts would mean producing 50% more food by 2050, while using the same land but reducing emissions by around two-thirds.


Experts have worried that U.S. agriculture is unprepared for changes along that scale. And on Thursday lawmakers sparred along partisan lines over USDA’s direction under Trump, with Republicans defending the department’s relocation and overall approach to research including climate studies. Democrats, however, underscored that they see changes at USDA as an attack on science.

“It’s clear to me that this is not a relocation,” said Stabenow. “It’s a demolition.”