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Agricultural leaders leery of EPA's new 'sustainability' mantra

by Chris Hinyub, published

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it wants to broaden its regulatory powers over agriculture in the name of “sustainable development”. In response, agricultural leaders are pleading with Congress to protect farmers from the possibility of being regulated out of business.

The EPA’s new policy approach is the product of a National Academies of Science (NAS) study, “Sustainability and the U.S. EPA” – conducted last year and published in August. The study suggests that the EPA should adopt a new “sustainability framework” in order to make federal regulators more “anticipatory” to environmental issues and to expand the scope of regulations to include social and economic “pillars”.

A panel of NAS scientists stated that their goal with the study was to:

“provide guidance to EPA on how it might implement its existing statutory authority to contribute more fully to a more sustainable-development trajectory for the United States.”

Part of that guidance was the urging of the EPA to “create a new culture among all EPA employees,” and hire new experts that would bring a sustainability focus to all EPA operations.  A public comment period on the NAS study began last week.

Allowing the EPA to use existing laws in new ways could be viewed as a scary proposition for farmers whose business decisions and operating costs are directly impacted by the discretionary whims of the agency. But, like it or not, change is in the air as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has gone on record calling sustainability “the next phase of environmental protection” and “fundamental to the future of the EPA.”

So why are farmers hesitant to embrace the future? The answer, industry insiders say, is that added regulations could ruin family farmers who are already drowning in a soup of over-reaching, ineffectual and sometimes counterproductive rules that raise both the costs of farming and the price of farm produce. The EPA’s new approach promises a sea-change in American agriculture, which may not be a good thing for established operations.

"EPA proposals are overwhelming to farmers and ranchers and are creating a cascade of costly requirements that are likely to drive individual farmers to the tipping point," testified Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Carl Shaffer before the House Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade last week. "The overwhelming number of proposed regulations on the nation's food system is unprecedented and promises profound effects on both the structure and competitiveness of all of agriculture."

Shaffer – a Chesapeake Bay area wheat, corn and green bean farmer – said that great progress in agriculture’s environmental performance has been made over the last few decades because farmers have cooperated with conservation and eco-system protecting measures hashed out by the Agriculture Department. This is "in contrast to EPA's heavy-handed approach of issuing crushing regulatory burdens,” said Shaffer.

When citing examples of unnecessary EPA meddling, ag leaders often point to: expensive and duplicative permits for the ordinary application of pesticides in regions regulated under the Clean Water Act, proposals to regulate dust in rural communities, and attempts to collect inordinate amounts of data from ranchers and livestock farmers.

According to farmer and president of Illinois Farm Bureau, Philip Nelson, the EPA’s recently enacted regulation – the Pesticide General Permit – is “a needless duplication of existing law.” In his testimony to lawmakers, Nelson said the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947 effectively covers pesticide labeling and application, already achieving the same conservation goal.

In this way, Shaffer says, the "EPA is literally piling regulation on top of regulation, and guidance on top of guidance, to the point of erecting barriers to economic growth."

When describing the negative effect that the pesticide permit has had on his operations, Nelson uttered a common refrain among farmers:

"[The permit] doesn't improve food safety, doesn't add any additional environmental protection or benefit for society, and does nothing to improve my bottom line."

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