Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue Says Hype Around Hemp May be Overblown

Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Shutterstock
March 19, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Despite all of the excitement surrounding the burgeoning hemp industry, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Cheddar on Tuesday it's not a sure bet it will become a cash crop for farmers.

"What is the market potential of industrial hemp? Farmers in the United States are so productive, they could crash this market before it gets off the ground," Perdue said, adding that he's seen this type of hype around other crops before.

His comments during the wide-ranging interview come on the heels of a hemp regulation webinar the U.S. Department of Agriculture held last week. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, have different roles to play in regulation. The FDA has stalled, following an announcement Commissioner Scott Gottlieb will step down, but hearings are still expected sometime in April. During the USDA's hearings last week, some, including Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarle, expressed concern that regulation would harm small family farms.

Perdue, who has generally been an opponent of regulation in the past, called for strict regulations in the case of hemp.

"With the illegality of its cousin, the THC marijuana, it has to be extremely regulated, because they're indistinguishable visibly between one another," said Perdue.

He also expressed skepticism that farmers looking to grow hemp would want to engage in the cannabis market ー due to the difference in legalization at the state and federal level.

"They want to be able to grow industrial hemp with the 0.33 [THC] limit, and they want to grow that. They are not interested in growing marijuana. They understand the conflict between some states being legal and federal law being illegal," Perdue added.

Perdue also touched on ongoing trade deals between the U.S. and the European Union and China.

Perdue called the EU "intransigent" in their discussions over agriculture, blaming Europe's strict regulations on health and environmental safety for the failure of a deal. Those regulations, which he said made for a "technology-free zone," effectively outlaw gene editing for food and cultivation of genetically modified organisms, and prevent the import of meat that has been treated with hormones.

Perdue said he "absolutely" has the support of President Trump, who has threatened Europe with tariffs on autos in order to negotiate an agricultural deal with Europe.

"We need the EU market and we are in continual conversation with them, but they have been very reticent about doing anything," Perdue said, adding that "there's not going to be a deal without agriculture."

When it comes to China, Perdue said he's hopeful a trade deal will be reached to alleviate the burden of tariffs on U.S. farmers, but "it's never over until it's over." In 2018, U.S. farmers filed 498 Chapter 12 bankruptcies, and the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis cautioned that farm income will continue to decline in 2019, the Associated Press reported. Despite the impact of tariffs, Perdue said he still supports Trump's tactics in China.

Tariffs aren't the only challenge facing U.S. farmers this week. Flooding in the Midwest has devastated farmers in states like Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and South Dakota who face losing livestock, as well as crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans. The soybean market, in particular, has already been hit especially hard by tariffs.

"They could lose everything and that's tough. We've got some safety net, but we may not have enough safety net in the farm bill to take care of those farmers who lose everything," Perdue said.

For full interview click here.