06/28/2019

Investigating The USDA’s Silence On Climate Change

10:13 minutes

close up view of blooming yellow wheat stalks with a cloudy sky in the background
A wheat field. Credit: Pixabay

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) receives over a billion dollars a year to study issues affecting American agriculture and the food supply. Climate change is one of those issues, and in years past, the ARS has publicized its work on how farmers can reduce their carbon footprint with no-till agriculture; how climate change alters the relationship of pests and crops; or how more abundant CO2 affects the growth of grasslands, potatoes, timber, wheat, and more. 

But in the last several years, that steady stream of climate-related agricultural science news has dried up. One of the only recent press releases from the ARS dealing with climate change is a good news story for the beef industry, about how beef’s greenhouse gas emissions may not be that bad after all. The agency’s move away from publicizing a wide range of work on climate science is part of a troubling trend, according to a new investigation by Politico. Helena Bottemiller Evich is the reporter on that story, and she joins Ira here to talk about it. 

We’ll also talk about a directive relocating several of the USDA’s agencies to Kansas City. Kevin Hunt, a USDA scientist and head of the Local 3403, the union for employees of the USDA’s Economic Research Service, talks about the move and why it’s one that he and many others won’t be making. 

Note: We reached out to the USDA before our interview and regarding the publication of climate change press releases, a spokesperson wrote: “Leadership has not discouraged ARS or any USDA agency from using terms such as climate change, climate, or carbon sequestration, or from highlighting work on these topics. Research continues on these subjects and we promote the research once researchers are ready to announce the findings, after going through the appropriate reviews and clearances.”

On the issue of employee relocation, the spokesperson said: “We are doing everything we can to ensure employees have the resources and information to make their decisions and to implement the transition smoothly and efficiently to ensure mission critical work can continue.”


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Segment Guests

Helena Bottemiller Evich

Helena Bottemiller Evich is senior food and agriculture reporter at Politico in Washington, D.C..

Kevin Hunt

Kevin Hunt is the Acting VP of Local 3403, ERS Union. He’s also a scientist and geographer with USDA’s Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The USDA’s agricultural research service receives over $1 billion a year to study issues affecting American agriculture and the food supply. 

And one of those issues as you might imagine, is climate change. We went through the archives of press releases from the Agricultural Research Service, or ARS. 

And in years past, 2011, 12, 13, 14, we found lots of news about how farmers can reduce their carbon footprint with no till agriculture, how climate change alters the relationship of pests and crops, or how more abundant CO2 affects the growth of grasslands, potatoes, timber, wheat. The list goes on. 

But in the last few years that steady stream of climate related agricultural science news has dried up. One of the only recent press releases from the ARS dealing with climate change is a good news story for the beef industry. About how maybe beef’s greenhouse gas emissions aren’t really that bad after all. 

And this move away from publicizing a wide range of work on climate science is part of a troubling trend, according to a new investigation by Politico. Helena BotteMiller Evich is a reporter on that story. She’s a senior food and agriculture reporter at Politico in Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. 

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Walk us through your investigation. What is happening at the USDA with climate change research? 

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: It’s really interesting. Because I’ve covered food and ag for nearly a decade. And I’ve covered USDA throughout this administration. 

And up until recently I hadn’t heard a ton of concern about climate science coming out of USDA. It hasn’t been an all out warfare like EPA or interior, or these agencies that we’ve read about where there’s a lot of conflict over climate science. So we haven’t heard a lot. 

So when I started to hear some whispers about the department shifting away from climate science that piqued my interest. I started looking into all of the communications that come out of USDA. Not just press releases out of the department, but also the agricultural research service which you mentioned. Which is the in-house science arm within USDA. 

But what I found is, you did a great job summarizing it. The climate science that USDA is still churning out, is just simply not being talked about. It is not being promoted. It really is a climate news drought. And that is driving less and less coverage of government science about climate change and agriculture. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s focus in on a specific instance of a paper about rice nutrition. Where it appears the ARS was ready to put out a press release and then changed their minds. Walk us through what happened there. 

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: It really is one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever covered. There was a team of researchers led by USDA that included researchers at the University of Tokyo, and the Chinese Academy of Science, and the University of Washington, even researchers in Australia. They had collaborated for more than two years to measure what happens to rice in an elevated CO2 atmosphere at levels that we are predicted to see within this century. 

And what they found confirmed a lot of recent research that had found that protein dropped, iron dropped, zinc dropped in rice. But they also found for the first time that some vitamins drop in rice under these conditions. So this was a new finding. Everyone involved in the research seemed to understand that it was going to get some attention. That when they published the study in a peer reviewed journal it was going to definitely spark some conversation and some press coverage. 

But when it came time to put the press packet out the University of Washington and USDA were coordinating. They had each written a press release. They had shared the press releases with each other. And then at the last minute USDA not only decided to not put out its press release, it called the University of Washington and said essentially, we don’t think you should do a press release either. 

The last they raised concerns about the date. So just a bizarre incident. The University of Washington took the concerns seriously, reviewed the paper, reviewed the evidence, determined the science was sound. And they still promoted the paper. It really shows the far reaching effects of having a government basically cast doubt on peer reviewed science. 

IRA FLATOW: We reached out to the USDA before out interview. And a spokesperson replied, leadership has not discouraged the ARS or any USDA agency from using terms such as climate change, climate, or carbon sequestration, or from highlighting work on these topics. Research continues on these subjects and we promote the research once researchers are ready to announce the findings after going through the appropriate reviews and clearances. Their words. 

This is interesting. You and your colleagues at Politico have been reporting on another bit of news about the USDA. They’re planning to relocate two agencies, the economic research service and the national institute of food and agriculture, more than 500 employees to Kansas City. 

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Yeah, this has been making waves really for several months now. There’s a lot of economists within the economic research service who feels that this move is essentially retaliation for some reports that have come out over the last year that run counter to the administration’s agenda on various policies like climate change, and the food stamp program, and related issues. And the USDA’s moving very quickly on this. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me only bring on someone who’s involved. Kevin Hunt is one of the USDA employees who was asked to move to Kansas along with hundreds of other science staff members. He’s a scientist and geographer at the economic research service in Washington. And he’s acting president of local 3403, the ERS union. Welcome to Science Friday. 

KEVIN HUNT: Hi, this is Kevin, acting vice president, I want to clarify. But, yes. 

IRA FLATOW: Acting vice president. You were asked to relocate. How many people have been asked along with you to relocate? 

KEVIN HUNT: There’s about 200 employees that received reassignment letters the exact same day that they announced that it would be Kansas City. We received those emails all the way until 11:00 PM at night. And now we have to make a decision if we’re willing to move in 30 days, basically, July 15th. 

IRA FLATOW: And what will determine whether you move or not? 

KEVIN HUNT: Well, most of us have personal situations of course. Some of my employees are disabled, some have disabled children, some are about to give birth. We have to basically drop everything and move or lose our jobs. 

IRA FLATOW: Why do you think they’re asking you to move? 

KEVIN HUNT: They say that it’s to get closer to stakeholders. However, they’re thinking about a very limited amount of stakeholders. The USDA budget is about 75% for food supplement. So every American is a customer of the USDA. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think this is an attempt to stifle science by the USDA? 

KEVIN HUNT: Well, the consequences will be that because most of us can’t make that kind of move in this short of a span without any incentive– this is a pay cut for most of us because of the locality pay difference. There’s no bonus or any sort of incentive to go. 

So for me personally, yes. I work on honeybee issues, pollination issues. I have a paper that’s in the review process right now. 

And we were kind of looking at, who are the co-authors? And there may not be anybody left by the time this would be published. Because that can be a six month process. 

IRA FLATOW: Helena, do you find anything unusual about this move? 

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: What I think is interensting about the move is just how quickly they’re going about it. The timeframe has been really accelerated. And I think that has fed a lot of this concern among some within ERF in particular that it’s meant to sort of weaken or shrink the research arm, basically. 

So the question of motive clearly there is no memo that says, this is the stated goal of the move. But there are a lot of officials involved at these agencies who feel that is the intent. And they’ve been clear about that. 

KEVIN HUNT: I would like to add too that during the presidential budget that was proposed for fiscal year 19, they wanted to cut staff by 50%. And the union did an estimate on how many employees were going to go. And we could lose between 70% and 90% of those employees that are reassigned. 

And then there’s a few employees that are being left in Washington DC. And so that would equate to about 50% to 60% in a staff reduction. So the numbers speak for themselves. They only have 200 available cubes in this temporary space with 550 employees. Do the math there. 

IRA FLATOW: So they’re waiting for people to resign instead of going. 

KEVIN HUNT: Yes. 

IRA FLATOW: OK, that’s– we’ll watch it. Thank you very much, both of you– 

KEVIN HUNT: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: for taking time with us. Helene BotteMiller Evich, senior food and agriculture reporter at Politico in Washington. Kevin Hunt, scientist and geographer at the US department of agriculture. And acting vice president of local 3403 the ERS union. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

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