As climate reckoning arrives over agriculture, USDA’s scientists face censorship

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A government climate scientist who says the Trump administration buried a groundbreaking report he authored has left the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in protest over the “political views” top officials allegedly imposed on his work.

Politico reported Monday that Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist who worked at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) for more than 20 years, quit due to an increasingly political atmosphere at the agency. Ziska had worked on a major rice study last year, one that found rising levels of carbon dioxide could imperil the critical source of sustenance for some 600 million people globally. According to Ziska’s work, the mineral and protein content in rice, along with key vitamins, is expected to drop as greenhouse gas levels rise.

Agency scientists have accused department officials of seeking to bury that report, among others, in keeping with President Donald Trump’s stance denying and downplaying climate change. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has similarly dismissed global warming as “weather patterns.”

USDA claims the study wasn’t publicized because of disagreement among career officials. But Ziska told Politico that the reason the study was buried is down to political ideology and the administration’s unwillingness to embrace established climate science.

“There was a sense [at USDA] that if the science agreed with the politics, then the policymakers would consider it to be ‘good science,’ and if it didn’t agree with the politics, then it was something that was flawed and needed to be done again,” he said.

The scientist’s departure coincides with a summary copy of a highly-anticipated U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land use being leaked this week. The report emphasizes that global food production must become more sustainable in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

His resignation also comes as the agency is still reeling from a controversial relocation effort connected to disputes over scientific integrity.

Controversial agency relocation slammed as attack on science by lawmakers, employees

The department is set to lose a staggering number of career officials over a deeply contested relocation plan. Perdue announced in June that staffers with USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would be asked to relocate to Kansas City, which straddles Kansas and Missouri. Over 500 staffers were given until July 15 to decide whether to relocate by September 30.

More than half of those staffers reportedly declined to move and have effectively chosen to resign — a dramatic loss of institutional knowledge and career staff who have worked with the department for decades.

USDA has argued that the move is a cost-saving effort to bring the department closer to farm country. But former USDA officials and the union representing employees have rejected that narrative. Many say it is an attempt to force out knowledgeable researchers and scientists, as well as a retaliation for the climate science work produced by some staffers at USDA.

Conversations about the link between agriculture and climate change, however, are only set to escalate. Last year, an IPCC report warned that the world had only 12 years left before crossing a dangerous threshold of global warming — one that would yield climate impacts on a scale not seen before. A leaked copy of this year’s report focuses on land use and the role of agriculture in mitigating climate change.

According to the draft, which is currently being debated in Geneva before its release later this week, cutting carbon emissions from sources like cars and power plants will only go so far. Agriculture, forestry, and other land-use practices are producing roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, the report says, with cattle and rice fields in particular generating around 50% of methane emissions. That has contributed heavily to climate impacts, the draft finds, with the situation only set to worsen.

“Climate change exacerbates land degradation through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency and severity, heat stress, wind, sea-level rise and wave action,” the document states.

In addition to changing how people use land, the IPCC draft underscores that switching to vegetarian and vegan diets may be a critical part of staving off the worst climate impacts.

That refrain may sound familiar to some. Critics of the proposed Green New Deal — a blueprint for radically shifting the United States to net-zero emissions — have argued the climate plan will “ban cows” and deprive Americans of hamburgers. The proposal itself does not move to bar bovines from the country but it does single out agriculture as a major source of greenhouse gases and a sector in need of overhauling if the United States is to zero-out emissions. The IPCC’s findings are therefore likely to draw more attention to the climate science realities dogging agriculture.

High profile exits at USDA are also likely to fuel scrutiny of the Trump administration’s attitudes towards the sector’s relationship with climate science. And other major exits over climate change are also driving headlines. Rod Schoonover, a former senior analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, wrote in an op-ed last week that the White House had blocked the release of his report on climate change and national security.

“The stated reason,” Schoonover said, “was that the scientific foundation of the analysis did not comport with the administration’s position on climate change.”

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