Introducing Sonny Perdue: Our New Secretary of Agriculture

Caption Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue via USDA

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue

Last week, in an 87 to11 vote, the Senate confirmed Sonny Perdue as the next US Secretary of Agriculture. His cousin, Senator David Perdue (R-GA), presided over the vote. Nominated back in January, Perdue is one of the very last cabinet members to be appointed by the Trump Administration.

What Does the Secretary of Agriculture do?

First, a little background. The Secretary of Agriculture is the head of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which includes several important offices, including the US Forest Service; the US Food Safety and Inspection Service; the US Cooperative State Research and Extension Service; and the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for  Women, Infant and Children (WIC), among others. The USDA has a $140 Billion budget and over 100,000 employees.

Who is Sonny Perdue?

George Ervin "Sonny" Perdue III grew up on a farm in central Georgia and is only the second Secretary of Agriculture from the Deep South. Coming from a strong farming background, he's credited with having a deep knowledge of the type of issues that farmers face. He has a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Georgia and worked as a veterinarian before becoming a small business owner. He has also served in the US Air Force and was a state senator from 1991 to2002.

Serving from 2003 to 2011 as the first Republican Governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, Perdue famously once led a group of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on the steps of the state Capitol building. During his tenure as governor, the Georgia State Ethics Commission received thirteen complaints against Perdue and ruled against him twice for violating ethics rules, finding that he had taken improper campaign contributions from donors and inappropriately used a family member's airplane on his campaign. Perdue was fined for these violations. He's also known to reward friends and donors with important political appointments.

After leaving the Governor's office in 2014, Perdue published an editorial in the National Review criticizing attempts to connect climate change to weather events. Currently, Perdue serves on the Governor's Council of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He's owned several agriculture companies including Perdue Partners, a food and agricultural good export and consulting business. (Side note - Sonny Perdue has no relation to the chicken farming giant Perdue farms.)

What are Sonny's Priorities and Vision for the USDA Under the Trump Administration?

Perdue has only been in office a few days and he's already announced that he's rolling back Michelle Obama's signature initiative to create stricter nutrition standards for school lunches. Under the guise of creating "greater flexibility" for school meal programs and "making school meals great again," schools won't have to lower the salt in meals, will be allowed to serve fewer whole grains and 1 percent milk rather than only nonfat. These standards were put in place as a part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010 in response to the fact that childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. According to the USDA, more than 95 percent of schools are implementing the Obama era nutrition standards set by the bipartisan legislation.    

On his first day on the job, Perdue addressed USDA staff, and laid out his general vision for the next four years, stating "the only legacy I seek is the one that any grandparent seeks - that is to hand off our nation...our fields and our farms to the next generation in better shape than we found it." Following that meeting, Perdue addressed the President and 15 agricultural producers form around the country - a group that was made up of mostly large scale meat, dairy, grain and produce farmers. Immediately following that meeting, President Trump signed an executive order establishing a task force on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. The group, which Perdue will lead, will study the struggles of rural Americans and identify "legislative, regulatory and policy changes to promote in rural American agriculture, economic development, job growth infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security and quality of life."

What are the Implications for Sustainable Food and Agriculture?

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted in their blog post last week, Perdue's first two outings provide some insight into the new Secretary's priorities and the Trump administration's vision for agriculture in the US. On one hand, he's pledged to support farmers of all sizes and has made statements the suggesting that natural resource conservation and land stewardship will be a real focus of the USDA going forward. At the same time, President Trump has proposed huge cuts to USDA's budget and he and Perdue have surrounded themselves almost exclusively with industrial farmers and agribusiness owners and have not given any information on how they plan to address the looming farm crisis. At this stage, the implications for sustainable food and agriculture are unclear.

Stay Tuned!

Here at Ecocentric we'll be keeping an eye on Secretary Sonny and the goings on at USDA. Stay tuned for more updates and analysis from our crack team of bloggers.