Top 10 Ag Stories of 2021: No. 2

New Administration Shifted Directions on Trade, Pesticides, RFS, Climate

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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2021: New year, new president, new rules affecting agriculture. (DTN photo by Pam Smith)

Each year, DTN publishes our choices for the top 10 ag news stories of the year, as selected by DTN analysts, editors and reporters. Today, we continue the countdown with No. 2: how the new presidential administration shifted directions on rules and regulations, including on trade, pesticide regulations, Waters of the United States, the Renewable Fuels Standard, and aid programs to farmers.


OMAHA (DTN) -- The switch from one presidential administration to another in 2021 was a major recalibration in rules and regulations -- and a shift in agenda and personalities as well.

Everything changed in terms of trade, pesticide regulations, Waters of the United States, the Renewable Fuels Standard, aid programs to farmers and focus on climate action. Those are just some of the major actions.


Trade talks and tariff wars had been a driving mission of former President Donald Trump and his administration as they pushed for the phase-one trade agreement with China, the retooling of North American trade with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), as well as agricultural deals with Japan and negotiations with the United Kingdom.

When Joe Biden came in as the new president, some business groups saw the chance for the U.S. to reenter the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but that hasn't happened.

The Biden administration and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai have reversed course. The administration allowed Trade Promotion Authority to expire and they haven't offered a proposal for Congress to reauthorize it. Without a new TPA, it's more complicated for Congress to vote on a new trade deal. Tai's focus in recent months has been to negotiate rollbacks of Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs with allies and use that as a strategy to reduce the carbon intensity in those industries. That was the deal reached with the European Union and offered by Japan.

Agricultural groups earlier this month lamented the administration's slow approach to trade. There are no new trade deals getting lined up for agriculture or other industries. The U.S.-China Economic and Trade Agreement (Phase One) is set to expire Dec. 31 with no clear pathway to extend or renew it. See…


The Environmental Protection Agency reversed positions under Administrator Michael Regan on pesticides. EPA announced in August it would revoke all residue tolerances for chlorpyrifos, essentially making it illegal to use on food and feed crops. The official ban on food-residue tolerance for chlorpyrifos takes effect on Feb. 28, 2022, and has drawn criticism from more than 80 agricultural groups, which have called on EPA to delay its actions. See…

Also see:…

EPA also finalized some biological findings on glyphosate, atrazine and simazine, citing that all three are "like to adversely affect" endangered species and their habitats. Those evaluations are now with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which is expected to develop additional protections that could increase restrictions on the chemicals.

The agency earlier this month continued to raise concerns about off-target use for dicamba and is considering changes that would affect the registrations for dicamba herbicides XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium. So far though, EPA has not made any official announcements. See "EPA Mulls Dicamba Changes"…


Waters of the United States (WOTUS) was a mantra in rural America in the 2016 election and helped drive farmers to vote for Trump. Regan, though, made it clear he objected to the Trump-era's Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which EPA moved quickly to repeal. In November, EPA announced it would replace the Trump rule with a definition of waters of the U.S. going back before 2015. As DTN reported, that decision "means a return to definitions expanded by EPA following the 2006 Supreme Court ruling in Rapanos v. U.S., including the so-called 'significant nexus' determination that was a feature of the 2015 rule." Significant nexus determinations in the 2015 rule were a concern to farmers, ranchers and other landowners who feared the expansion of federal jurisdiction onto private lands.

"In recent years, the only constant with WOTUS has been change, creating a whiplash in how to best protect our waters in communities across America," Regan said in a news release.…

The long, complicated battle will continue when it comes to defining where federal oversight begins and ends for rivers, streams, and agriculture.


It took much of 2021 for EPA to move ahead with plans to set the Renewable Fuel Standard blend volumes. Biofuel groups spent much of the year pointing to the Biden administration's goal of reducing greenhouse gases and highlighting how renewable fuels could meet that goal.

Yet, despite the White House desire to address climate change, the administration called on petroleum refiners to increase production in 2021 to counter fuel price inflation. Regular fuel prices were a big deal throughout the year. Gasoline with no ethanal is priced at $3.30 a gallon, a full $1.10 higher than a year ago, according to AAA. E85 prices are pegged at $3.08 a gallon nationally, also $1.08 higher than the same price last year.

EPA finally settled in earlier this month with proposals to cut blend volumes for refiners retroactively, but also reject 65 pending small-refinery exemptions from blend obligations going back to 2016. To help smooth over the cut in overall blend volumes, USDA also announced it would release as much as $800 million in aid to biofuel producers affected by the pandemic.…


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came into his second stint at the helm of USDA to aggressively reduce greenhouse gases across agriculture. The Biden administration set a path for agriculture to achieve "net-zero" emissions. Vilsack has stressed from the beginning that farmers and ranchers should be paid to reduce emissions through voluntary programs.

"If it's voluntary and incentive based, you will see farmers and ranchers cooperate extensively," Vilsack said at his confirmation hearing.

The focus on carbon, though, was partly slowed by the nomination of Robert Bonnie as undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation programs not getting a Senate confirmation vote until mid-November.

The pandemic also slowed USDA's work on emission reductions. First, the Biden administration put a halt on Trump administration aid initiatives rolled out right before the change in presidents. USDA then rolled out its own program Pandemic Assistance for Producers, with roughly $6 billion in new aid distributions. Going back to 2020, USDA has distributed more than $19 billion just in Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 (CFAP 2) payments.

One aspect of USDA's pandemic aid included a plan passed by Congress to eliminate roughly $4 billion in USDA loans for minority farmers. That plan, however, was stopped by multiple lawsuits filed by white farmers who would not qualify for the loan-relief program. The litigation continues to stall that program.

Vilsack took his message on climate change and agriculture to the U.N. climate conference in late October where he highlighted the prospects for reducing emissions. Still, much of what Vilsack and USDA hope to achieve is tied up in the Build Back Better bill, which might get a Senate vote in January. That remains to be seen.

See "Vilsack Sees Action Needed to Combat Climate,"…


Editor's Note:

You can find No. 10 in DTN's top 10 list at….

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This article included extensive reporting throughout 2021 from Todd Neeley and Emily Unglesbee.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton