WASHINGTON – A Minnesota native who spent the past 20 years as the chief lobbyist for the soybean industry is poised to move into regulating it in the No. 2 job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Stephen Censky, who grew up in Jackson, Minn., is President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy secretary of agriculture. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, his 21 years as CEO of the American Soybean Association could be a boon to the industry in his home state, the country’s third-largest soybean producer. The association’s Minnesota affiliate has more members than any other state.
Censky played a major role in last year’s passage of the first federal law to mandate labels for foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — a controversial and wide-ranging initiative that affects soybean farmers, grocery stores and food companies from Kraft to General Mills. The federal law invalidated a GMO labeling law in Vermont that agricultural and food interests opposed over concerns that different standards in just one state would lead to higher costs for national companies.
“Farmers will lose, and ultimately consumers will lose, as a safe and valuable tool for sustainable food production is driven from the marketplace by activists who got a state to pass ill-conceived legislation that devastates farmer livelihoods and raises food costs for all Americans,” Censky said last year.
Some advocates wonder if Censky’s previous work compromises his ability to provide oversight of the industry he just represented. He’s one of many Trump administration government nominees who hail from sectors that their new agencies regulate.
“When you’re deputy secretary, your job is to serve all Americans, including but not limited to soybean farmers,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which pushed for stronger labeling standards. “So a big challenge will be ensuring that the GMO disclosure rules … work for consumers.”
Censky grew up on a corn, soybean and livestock farm in Jackson, roughly halfway between Albert Lea and the South Dakota border and just south of Interstate 90. He began his career as a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor, a South Dakota Republican, and went on to work for the USDA in the Reagan and first Bush administration. Censky, who lives with his wife in the St. Louis area, did not grant an interview for this story.
Stakeholders in Washington and Minnesota praise Censky’s professionalism and experience and say that he’ll be a strong advocate for food and farming interests while not being governed by a personal agenda. “I think he will be ruled by the science, period — no matter who that favors,” said Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.
America is the world’s largest soybean producer, with Minnesota alone averaging 7 million acres of soybeans planted a year. Soybeans also have the largest acreage of bioengineered crops in the U.S., according to the USDA.
The Government Accountability Office, in a 2016 report, said the USDA needed to have stronger oversight of genetically engineered crops.
Last year, Vermont passed its law mandating that food packages disclose the presence of genetically modified ingredients. Proponents of the legislation argued that consumers deserve to know what’s in their food. But Censky and other industry executives sprung into action.
Conner recounted how he, Censky and executives from Nestlé and Hershey met with Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, to talk about a solution. The group worried that a patchwork of state laws would pose a costly disruption to the food supply system, and they wanted to strike a compromise with proponents of GMO labeling. That led to broader negotiations on a nationwide law governing uniform food labeling standards.
Food and agricultural groups formed the Coalition of Safe Affordable Food, led by Conner and Pam Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Censky played a key role in the lobbying effort, making his case to members of Congress and on conference calls with reporters as he argued that labeling could push soybean farmers away from genetically altered crops and cause them to lose valuable markets.
‘A monumental bill’
Censky praised agricultural biotechnology for making pest control and weed management safer and protecting crops from disease. He criticized the Vermont law for “stigmatization of biotechnology through on-[package] labeling.”
Obama signed the compromise in August 2016, nullifying the Vermont measure.
“That was a monumental bill in a Congress that was not passing a lot of bills, and we were thrilled with the outcome of that,” Conner said. “Steve was a key player getting passage of that legislation.”
Critics petitioned and protested on Capitol Hill, complaining it was a watered-down compromise engineered by moneyed agribusiness interests and warning it could wind up exempting many foods with GMOs from disclosure.
The law gives the USDA broad discretion on how the rules will be implemented. The agency decides which GMOs must be labeled, what those labels say — and whether GMOs need to be fully disclosed on the package at all. The law allows the option of consumers scanning QR codes with smartphones to gain access to websites that provide more detailed information on GMOs.
“Stringent, unnecessary rules … impact all areas of the supply chain, so that’s why we think it’s important to have someone in the deputy secretary role that understands agriculture and food retailing and everything in between,” said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer at the Food Marketing Institute, a member of the Coalition of Safe Affordable Food.
Minnesotans who have worked with Censky on soybean issues are excited at the prospect of him moving to the USDA. “Generally we oppose [GMO labeling], but the USDA could come a long way in helping the average consumers understand why this technology is so important,” said Tom Slunecka, CEO of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, which has nearly 3,400 members.
Critics see more corporate influence leaking into Trump’s federal government. Censky’s trade group has been against consumers’ right to know, transparency and sustainable agriculture, according to Ronnie Cummins, Minneapolis-based national director of the Organic Consumers Association, which wanted stronger GMO labeling requirements.
“The Bush and Obama administrations have been cheerleaders for corporate agribusiness and the genetic engineering industry, and the only difference with the Trump administration is they’re even worse,” Cummins said.
Conner and others are more concerned by the lack of movement around Censky’s nomination, which Trump made in July. Other key roles at USDA are also unfilled. The Minnesota Farm Bureau has complained to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will vet Censky. Klobuchar’s office said she supports Censky but does not control scheduling for hearings.
So far, the only nominee confirmed by lawmakers to the $140 billion budget agency is Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“He [Perdue] cannot single-handedly participate in all of these negotiations and interactions with the White House,” Conner said, “ … that’s why we’re anxious to see guys like Censky get confirmed and help him out.”