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The urban-rural divide over the environment

The urban-rural divide over the environment 

With help from Catherine Boudreau

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Morning Agriculture will not be published on Monday, Feb. 17. We’ll be back on our normal schedule on Tuesday, Feb. 18.


Editor’s Note: This edition of Morning Agriculture is published weekdays at 10 a.m. POLITICO Pro Agriculture subscribers hold exclusive early access to the newsletter each morning at 6 a.m. Learn more about POLITICO Pro’s comprehensive policy intelligence coverage, policy tools and services at

— New data out today highlights the gap between urban and rural residents over how the country should handle environmental issues. It boils down to rural mistrust of Washington and the fear of industries like agriculture being sidelined in the national climate conversation.

— Amid the Trump administration’s efforts to overhaul school nutrition standards, senators today are filing a bipartisan bill that would set up a pilot program to fund nutrition education in schools, especially in areas with higher rates of diet-related illnesses and low-income children.

— Sen. Gary Peters is asking trade officials to be “much more aggressive” in protecting smaller corners of agriculture from unfair foreign trade practices, like Turkey potentially skirting U.S. tariffs by funneling its cherry imports through Brazil.

HAPPY THURSDAY, FEB. 13! Welcome to Morning Ag, where we are so disappointed to learn that Papa John didn’t really eat 40 pizzas in 30 days after all. Send tips and hot takes to and @ryanmccrimmon, and follow us @Morning_Ag.

THE URBAN-RURAL DIVIDE OVER THE ENVIRONMENT: Rural voters’ deep distrust of the government helps explain their split with city dwellers over environmental policy, according to new polling published today by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The divide isn’t centered around who cares more for the environment and conservation — more than 70 percent of both rural and suburban/urban voters described the issue as “very important.” But a stark contrast emerges when asked about their preferred level of government oversight: Forty percent of rural voters support less, compared with 47 percent of urban voters who support more, Pro Ag’s Catherine Boudreau reports this morning.

“My hope is that this will help us understand how to engage with rural constituencies,” said Robert Bonnie, executive in residence at the institute, who led the project. “This data suggests there is an approach to national climate legislation that empowers states and local government because folks were much more comfortable with that.”

Urging climate action: There are growing calls from the public, Democratic presidential candidates and many lawmakers for a robust federal response to climate change. But major legislation is unlikely to pass Congress without backing from rural-based industries, such as agriculture and forestry, which historically have opposed environmental regulations.

Bonnie said his team sought to shed light on why that is, and explore whether alternative policies or strategies for gaining support from rural constituents might help bridge the gap.

Messengers are key: Most rural voters, or 34 percent, said they trust local farmers and ranchers the most about environmental and conservation issues. Behind them were university scientists, followed by government agencies and then the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Bonnie said this suggests that better talking points alone won’t shrink divisions. Rural voters have to feel like they have some control over the process, he said, because many worry that climate policy will leave them out of the conversation and increase hardships in their communities.

Framing matters: Messages that emphasize moral responsibility to future generations, as well as how environmental and climate action can lead to economic opportunities, play best among rural voters, according to Duke’s polling.

FUNDS FOR FOOD EDUCATORS: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are teaming up on legislation aimed at helping teach young students about healthy eating. The measure, which the senators plan to introduce today, would offer grants to local education agencies to fund projects that include hiring full-time nutritional educators. Booker said in a statement that a lack of access to healthy food, especially in underserved communities, is frequently a detriment to academic performance.

Programs backed by grant funding under the bill would be required to incorporate hands-on activities for students like setting up school gardens, taste testing and farm-to-school efforts. The legislation would prioritize schools in neighborhoods with high rates of childhood diet-related illnesses or where 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Kumar Chandran, policy director at FoodCorps, said the measure would help more kids “know what healthy food is, care where it comes from and eat it every day.” The plan is also backed by the American Heart Association, the National Farm to School Network and other school and nutrition groups.

The backdrop: The bipartisan effort comes as the Agriculture Department is moving to chip away at school nutrition standards and crack down on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including a rule that would cause some 982,000 low-income students to lose their automatic access to free school meals.

A TOUGHER TRADE FIREWALL FOR SMALL AG SECTORS: Peters on Wednesday talked up a bipartisan bill he’s working on with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that would give the Commerce Department greater authority to “self-initiate investigations” to help less influential sectors combat potential trade manipulation.

“If you’re a big industry — if you’re the steel industry, for example — you can hire an army of lawyers and economists to push back against unfair subsidized trade by foreign governments,” the Michigan Democrat said on a conference call with reporters. “If you’re a smaller industry like cherries or blueberries or other agricultural products, that’s very difficult.”

In a letter to Customs and Border Protection on Tuesday, Peters called for an investigation into Turkey’s tart cherry exports. He pointed out that shortly after the U.S. slapped duties on Turkish cherries in 2018, Brazilian cherry exports to the U.S. surged as much as 1200 percent — even though Brazil “does not appear to have a discernible tart cherry industry.”

Ag inspectors coming in hot: Trump is set to sign separate legislation from Peters that would boost the number of agricultural inspectors and canine teams at U.S. ports of entry, a step that could help keep animal diseases like African swine fever from reaching the continent. The Homeland Security ranking member said there’s a shortage of nearly 700 inspectors across the country, including eight in Michigan.

John Kran, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, warned of the “huge, huge impact [ASF] could have on the U.S. pork industry should it make it into our country. Think about what that would mean to the American consumer looking to buy bacon or pork chops or ham or something else on the shelf.”

Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, asked USDA to explain an “apparent instance of climate censorship” regarding an environmental review by the Forest Service for new oil and gas leasing in Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported last month that an agency official allegedly directed employees to scrub references to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from the documents. Read the letter from Stabenow (and catch up on our coverage of climate science at USDA).

— Kraft Heinz is under pressure to lay out a clear path forward after a brutal year of falling revenue and fierce competition. The packaged foods manufacturer reports its fourth quarter earnings today, and analysts widely expect the numbers to fall flat. But investors are looking for details about the company’s efforts to revitalize classic brands like Oscar Mayer and Jell-O. Bloomberg has the story.

— House Republicans rolled out a package of four bills on Wednesday as part of their climate change strategy, but the legislation is already facing attacks from inside and outside the GOP conference. The bills lean heavily on planting trees and spending on carbon-capture technology while eschewing any limits on emissions or renewable energy requirements, writes Pro Energy’s Eric Wolff.

— Adding more grocery stores in densely populated areas could lead to lower rates of food waste, according to research published in the journal Manufacturing & Service Operations Management. Greater access to groceries reduces food waste as consumers make more frequent trips to the store and smaller purchases each time, lowering the chance that food will expire before its used.

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