Trump’s pick for USDA head mixed on climate change

Sonny Perdue’s history shows interest in conservation and big business interests.


On Jan. 19, President Donald Trump nominated former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue for secretary of agriculture. 

Perdue, a Republican, has been involved with agriculture for most of his life in some capacity. A former fertilizer salesman, business owner and veterinarian, Perdue now runs global trading company Perdue Partners LLC, which exports everything from chickens to wine to cosmetics, with his cousin Sen. David Perdue R-Ga. He is also currently on the board of the Georgia Agribusiness Council and the National Grain and Feed Association. He was the governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011.

In 2009, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, left, met with then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to discuss the state's drought.
U.S. Department of the Interior

If confirmed, he’ll wield significant influence over public lands and farming programs out West. The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages millions of acres of Forest Service land, most in Western states, as well as the controversial predator control program Wildlife Services, and rural economic development, education and assistance programs. He will also oversee the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill. Under former President Barack Obama and then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA encouraged public access to Forest Service lands and a move towards sustainable farming practices. The agency also took on climate change by pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging alternative fuel consumption and water efficiency on farms through its Climate Change Adaptation Plan. What direction Perdue will take the USDA will be clearer after his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which is not yet scheduled. His cousin and business partner Sen. Perdue is on that committee.

In the past, Perdue has made light of climate change. In 2014, he wrote an opinion piece in the National Review mocking liberals for the “national debate” on climate change. “It’s become a running joke among the public,” Perdue wrote, “and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science because their arguments have become so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.” In 2005, Perdue founded the Governor’s Energy Policy Council to guide energy use, with the aim of reducing dependence on foreign energy sources, and encouraging renewable energy.

In 2007, during an intense drought in Georgia, Perdue declared a state of emergency and issued water restrictions. When that didn’t work, Perdue led a group to pray for rain on the state capitol’s steps, garnering national attention. Surprisingly, Perdue is not the only one in Trump’s prospective cabinet to turn to prayer during severe drought. In 2011 then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now nominated to oversee the Department of Energy, made three days in April the “Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas.”

As governor of Georgia, Perdue did take steps to conserve land. He approved Georgia’s first Land Conservation Act with $100 million in funding to “preserve a statewide network of land and water resources, prime agricultural and forestry land, and natural, historic and recreation areas,” Perdue said in a press release at the time. And in 2008, he began an education campaign, backed by the Department of Agriculture, Georgia Forestry Commission and Environmental Protection Division, to nurture a “culture of conservation” among Georgia residents, schools, landowners and state government.

Groups like the National Corn Growers Association, National Chicken Council and American Forest Foundation applauded his nomination. The American Forest Foundation cited his work as governor, while the National Chicken Council held up Perdue’s familiarity with agricultural business and acquaintance “with a wide array of agriculture commodities.” But conservationists and environmentalists were generally unimpressed with Trump’s choice of Perdue, citing his close connection with the large-scale agriculture industry and his business-friendly attitude to land management. Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release that national forests “need someone at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who understands their intrinsic value, not someone who simply sees things in terms of commodities and profits.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

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