Sean McBride is the founder of DSM Strategic Communications. He is the former executive vice president of communications & membership services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former director of communications at the American Beverage Association.
Far away from the troubling headlines about current events and the discord blanketing society these days, Congress and the Trump administration continue to reshape the food, nutrition and agricultural landscape.
The food policy plate is full to overflowing. The Farm Bill is mired in politics. New approaches to trade have created instability for farms and farmers. Federal agencies don’t quite yet know how they are going to regulate plant-based and laboratory-grown food.
That’s just a start. The federal government’s dietary guidance for consumers, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is stuck at the starting gate. The United States Department of Agriculture has not issued congressionally mandated labeling regulations for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on a national nutrition strategy as well as a regulatory framework for the use of gene-edited crops.
When it comes to food policy, the Trump administration can be as unpredictable and disruptive as it is on foreign policy and immigration. Thus, it has given us ideas like Harvest Boxes, work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility and emergency funding to farmers to ease the pain of tariffs and trade policies.
Because Republicans control the House and Senate, there is an alliance — although an uneasy one — between Capitol Hill and the administration. What they have in common is a free-market philosophy and a belief that government is an impediment to economic growth.
Food manufacturing is right near the top of the most regulated industry sectors, so government decisions matter. Across the food policy agenda, GOP policymakers are generally sympathetic to the perspectives of the farmers, processors, manufacturers and retailers tasked with supplying billions of people around the world with safe and affordable food.
That dynamic could change if the Democratic Party takes control of the House or Senate on Tuesday. Current polling seems to indicate Democrats may be able to take charge of the House, while the Senate could be out of reach.
Let’s imagine the Democrats take control of the House. The legislative agenda becomes even more complicated. The House will use its constitutional powers to oppose the Senate, block the Trump administration’s proposals, and slow down or prevent regulatory activity at the FDA and USDA.
For instance, federal agency oversight powers and appropriations riders are two tried and true tools one party uses to sabotage the agenda of a president who controls the Senate. Federal agency employees will have to spend countless hours preparing for hearings, answering queries from committee members, and providing justification for their processes and decisions.
So a food policy agenda that could easily be described as weird during the last two years could get even stranger. Can a Farm Bill pass without work requirements? Will a Democrat-led House lead the charge for progressive dietary guidelines that include environmental considerations? Can or will a Democratic House be able to impact the president’s trade agenda?
What about the genetically modified labeling regulations? They may not be issued until next year. Could a Democratic House of Representatives stop or alter the Trump administration’s plan?
The GOP-controlled House, aligned with the administration on SNAP work requirements, has been the stumbling block on the Farm Bill. Perhaps the GOP Senate and a Democratic House could strike a deal on the Farm Bill. But would the president sign it?
Consumers just want new, healthier alternatives, but can USDA and FDA put their sibling rivalry aside and achieve new rules for standards of identity for plant-based foods and beverages, as well as establish regulations for lab-grown food that please both consumers and industry? A divided Congress would make these goals more difficult to achieve.
And where does a divided Congress leave food production advocates? Two strategies become even more important. Quietly finding friends on Capitol Hill in both parties that understand the difficulty of modern food production is essential. Separately, advocacy communications campaigns that mobilize constituents to weigh in with policymakers can define policy winners and losers anytime — but even more so when policymaking powers are owned by opposing political parties.
If you are hoping for more stability and predictability in the food policy arena after the midterm elections, don’t hold your breath. The wild ride is potentially about to get even wilder. It’s another reminder that elections do indeed have consequences.