If you have to speak to a stranger now at a party the opening gambits are easy, writes Richard Wright Simply say, ‘what about Brexit, what do you think’ or ‘what do you make of Donald Trump’. Either of those comments will ease any need for small talk - and both are guaranteed to produce no conclusions. What both the subjects that would not even have been on the radar twelve months ago do underline is the uncertainty business faces about future prospects, and that includes agriculture.
It is easy to conclude that the Trump presidency in the United States has nothing to do with European farming. However he will be setting the policy direction for the world’s true agricultural superpower and that will be felt in every other country or trading bloc involved in global export markets. Trump has little knowledge of agriculture – a fact he admits; he has never set out his stall on agricultural policy, and few expect him to show much interest beyond using it to lever success for other policy priorities.
What Trump will not be allowed to forget is that he has a debt to pay to farmers. They voted for him, and he knows that. But with most of his cabinet members nominated there is concern that the post of agriculture secretary has not been filled. Trump’s transition team has spoken to lots of people, but the US farming lobby is becoming increasingly frustrated over the delay in making an appointment. It does seem that those he has spoken to have some agricultural experience, but the delay confirms that Trump’s transition team has not given much thought to rewarding farmers for their support.
Trump secured the farmer vote in many areas, but that was largely because he said he would take away powers from the Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers were concerned it would target water use and hostility towards the EPA won a lot of farmer support for Trump. This was akin to farmers supporting Brexit because they were frustrated with the red tape that surrounds the CAP.
During the campaign he came out against genetically modified (GM) crops, but quickly backed down when told this was a technology embraced by American farmers. Trump has made no secret that he wants to roll back climate change legislation, but at the same time has said he supports the production and use of ethanol. Trump’s big interest is in agriculture as a driver of trade, and as a source of employment in the US. He has however said he will target illegal immigration and that is a threat to an industry that depends on migrant labour for everything from growing and harvesting vegetables to staffing the big dairy units.
When it comes to trade Trump wants to export, but he wants to roll back free trade deals. He even wants to overturn NAFTA, which since 1994 has created a free trade zone between the US, Mexico and Canada. He has said he will block the trans-Pacific trade deal with Asia and the TTIP free trade deal with Europe is just about dead. In that scenario it is hard to see where American agriculture will go. Trump is unlikely to roll back support, but he is unlikely to be a great enthusiast for a Farm Bill that shields farmers from the market, albeit not on the scale the CAP does in the EU. As a populist, swept to power by once Democrat voters in the rust belt states of the north and east, Trump knows low food prices are important. If those are being delivered by the market he will be happy with that outcome.
An interest in agriculture is not a requirement to be the US president, and Trump is unlikely to focus much of his attention on it. However if farming policies help drive his other goals he will use it to achieve that, be it exports, creating new jobs or undermining the environmental lobby. It will be a far cry from Eisenhower’s great comment about farming being easy when your plough was a pencil and the nearest corn field was a thousand miles away. Trump is more likely to see agriculture as a means to an end, as he is unlikely to ever understand the passion farmers have for what they do, or the impact it has in areas about which he has little interest.