The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to use the “latest available science” to help the nation’s farmers avoid risk, according to its own mission. So it was more than a little surprising when, last year, the agency decided not to promote an alarming study (that two of its employees had contributed to) that showed climate change could lessen the nutritional value of rice — a crop the agency says the U.S. is a “major exporter” of.
Here’s the gist of the research: Rice may not be super flavorful by itself, but for millions of people, particularly in Southeast Asia, it’s an important source of both protein and calories. Rice also contains a suite of B vitamins, iron, and zinc. But those nutrients appear to decrease if rice is grown in high ambient concentrations of CO2 — the kind that climate models are predicting for the end of the century. Scientists say that could exacerbate the incidence of illnesses like malaria and diarrheal disease in places that rely on the staple crop.
At first, the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s in-house research arm, seemed open to promoting the study. When Jeff Hodson, the director of communications at the University of Washington’s school of public health (from where two of the paper’s contributors hailed), reached out to the ARS about coordinating efforts to get the word out to journalists about the research, he was told the department had begun drafting a press release. But a week later he was notified the USDA had killed its promotional efforts around the study.
In an email explaining the decision to Hodson, a USDA spokesperson wrote, “The narrative really isn’t supported by the data in the paper.” She added: “Please let me know how you will proceed with your own press release.”
Questions about the muffling of the rice research were also circling within the USDA. Lewis Ziska, a 25-year veteran of the department who worked on the study told Grist the decision to keep the paper quiet was a departure from protocol. The highly unusual manner in which the ARS abruptly canceled the press release and the excuse the agency gave for doing so, he said, “indicated that it wasn’t a question of the science anymore, it was a question of the ideology.” He began to wonder if the study was being buried due, at least in part, to the Trump administration’s apparent indifference toward climate change.
“This is the first time that we’ve been told that the data don’t support the findings for any climate paper; that’s never happened before,” Ziska said.
But despite the USDA’s non-promotion, the paper did not quietly fade into academic obscurity. After checking with the interim head of the School of Public Health — who said in an email that the research seemed “straightforward” — Hodson decided to press on with promoting the paper. The university issued a press release that included a quote from Ziska, and they helped connect reporters with him as well as the school’s own scientists. The research garnered coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Seattle Times, among other outlets.
Ziska and his team’s findings that protein, iron, and zinc levels decreased in rice grown in higher carbon dioxide concentrations verified the work of Samuel Myers, a research scientist at Harvard’s Center for the Environment who works closely on the human health impacts of climate change. To Myers, who examined this incident against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s war on climate science, it seemed to be part of a pattern.
“The USDA is part of a federal administration that can only be described in legal terms as ‘exhibiting depraved indifference to climate change,’” he said. Suppressing a study that highlighted the negative effects of global warming on a major food staple is, Myers added, “completely consistent with the way the federal administration has been acting for the past two and a half years.”
The Trump administration’s combative position on all things climate and environment has had a significant and lasting impact on multiple federal agencies. Earlier this month, Ziska decided to abandon his tenure at the USDA after securing a job at Columbia University. At the Environmental Protection Agency, employees say morale has plummeted as the agency continues to roll back key environmental and health regulations. Mentions of climate change have disappeared from government websites.
Rather than try to increase retention rates, some critics say these agencies are happy to lose some of their more seasoned officials. The Bureau of Land Management is planning to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Colorado, in what at least one representative and multiple environment groups have called a scheme to shake its tenured policy officials. And in July, the USDA gave its D.C.-based employees a week to decide whether they would relocate to the department’s new headquarters in Kansas City. Administration officials said the move was aimed at cutting costs; critics said it was yet another attempt to bleed tenured talent.
In a statement to Grist, a USDA spokesperson pushed back on the idea that the agency is suppressing climate change research. “No one attempted to block the paper – it is freely available in the science literature,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that higher-ups at the agency disagreed with the paper’s conclusion that rising levels of CO2 would put 600 million people at risk of vitamin deficiency. “Issuing an ARS press release would have erroneously signified that ARS concurs with the nutrition-related claims,” the spokesperson noted.
“The notion that this is not of public health significance is just ridiculous,” said Harvard’s Myers, in response to the ARS’s position on the research. The controversial study just focused on rice, he added, but “every other food crop across the board is losing nutrients in response to CO2.”
A spokesperson for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science Advances, the journal where the rice article appeared, stood behind the research, saying that the study went through “rigorous peer review” before it was published.
For Ziska, the incident constituted an abdication of one of ARS’s responsibilities, which is working to solve climate change-related issues that farmers face. “It’s surreal to me,” he said.