Ag Regulatory Pressures

Concerns Range From Pesticide Oversight to Food Safety to Labor

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Problems getting H2-A approval for guest produce guest workers were among the issues discussed Wednesday in a hearing about ag's cost of production. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agricultural groups shared their grievances over regulatory challenges Wednesday during a hearing about factors affecting the costs of production.

Seven witnesses from across the country detailed regulatory complaints including EPA's oversight of pesticides, new FDA food-safety regulations, the Department of Labor's management of farmworker programs, and the prospect of labeling foods with ingredients from biotech crops.

Rodney Davis, R-Ill., chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, kicked off the hearing by criticizing the administration because of regulations and lack of response to Congress. In particular, Davis said he and other committee members have been waiting two months for EPA to respond to written questions about the waters of the U.S. rule that is tied up in federal courts.

"Our government agencies need to stop implementing burdensome policies and regulations, which threaten the farm economy and pose challenges for producers and processors with little evidence of added benefit to food safety or production," Davis said.

While everyone had a wish list of regulatory issues they would like to change, the hearing had no direction in terms of legislative vehicles to offer some relief. Still, subcommittee members sought specific examples where they believed regulatory issues were affecting producers' bottom lines.

Maureen Torrey, vice-president of Torrey Farms, a diverse vegetable, grain and dairy operation in New York, told lawmakers that labor is the top cost facing specialty crops and among the top costs for dairy producers. American farmers are affected by the fact that the immigration process is badly in need of repair and reform, she said. Torrey told lawmakers her farm was 28 days behind planting onions this season because of problems getting H-2A guest workers approved.

Due to an influx in demand under the program, the Department of Labor has been swamped with applications for H-2A workers and has failed to keep up with the volume of applications. Without changes, producers are going to shift away from high-labor crops. "We will see some of these fruits and vegetables no longer grown in the United States because of lack of labor," Torrey said.

In another challenge for fruit and vegetable growers, producers and processors are now struggling to understand the different rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act, said Kate Woods of Northwest Horticulture Council in Washington State. Separate rules on produce safety and prevention controls for human safety run 800 to 930 pages long. The rules, Woods said, "are daunting and confusing."

Making things more difficult, some long-time packinghouse managers and staff aren't allowed to be trainers because they don't have specific degrees in education or science. "If you think this sounds confusing, imagine how packinghouse operators are currently feeling," Woods said.

Rich Guebert, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, told lawmakers that farmers in his state are currently planting crops with a return below the cost of production. He pointed to input costs that are four times higher than in the mid-1980s. Indexed for inflation, the economic return for Illinois farmers after family expenses is currently at the lowest level since 1972.

Guebert said Farm Bureau is encouraged that EPA is now soliciting public comment on the use of dicamba formulations for dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. Guebert said there is a growing need for new technologies to manage weed resistance. Farm Bureau wants to see EPA approve dicamba herbicide without restrictions on tank mixes or buffer zones.

Still, Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, said EPA keeps pushing back the date for public comment on approval of dicamba. Just within the last few days EPA pushed back the comment date to May 31, Vroom said.

Vroom also told lawmakers that EPA seems to be shifting policies to rely on less robust science. For instance, EPA empaneled another panel to study chlorphyrifos insecticide when previous scientific advisory panels in 2008 and 2012 reviewed the same insecticide and found no problems. EPA could revoke the tolerance levels for chlorphyrifos, which would make the product virtually unmarketable, he said.

"It's hard to have a predictable regulatory environment when these kinds of surprises occur," Vroom said.

Beyond using science to decide the risks of a product, Vroom added that EPA officials feel they are increasingly under pressure from social media campaigns such as "Facebook moms" who want to ban various agricultural pesticides. Agriculture needs to do better in using social media to show how science works, Vroom added. Panelists also lamented the failure of the Senate to find a compromise on a GMO labeling bill even though the House voted out a bipartisan bill last year. Chuck Conner, president of the National Farmers Cooperative Council, said the consequences of Vermont's law requiring labels would drive up food costs as much as $1,000 per family, according to one industry study.

"That's just simply unacceptable," Conner said.

Yet, even congressmen and agribusiness groups lamented the lack of legislation, when the dairy company Dannon announced it would phase out genetically modified feed for dairies that market milk products to Dannon. Dannon wants to stop using ingredients from genetically modified crops and would label any products that still use GMOs.

Guebert said afterward that the hearing itself might not provide any direct impact, it was still helpful to discuss some of the plight facing commodity farmers in the Midwest. He said farmers face a lot of uncertainty in prices and income right now, but he saw some positive signs with changes in corn and soybean prices last week.

"We saw a little bit of an opportunity last week when we saw a $1.30 increase in soybeans and a 50-60 cent increase in corn, which was very much welcome, but the uncertainty is out there in the farming community," Guebert said. "Should we pull the trigger? Will there be better pricing opportunities out there ahead? You want to get out there and get above your cost of production, but if you pull the trigger too soon and sell for only a nickel and dime better, when you have an opportunity out there to sell for 20 cents better, then you have really sold yourself short. But that's farming and that's the way it is."

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Chris Clayton