Farm bill draft includes regulatory provisions

The farm bill draft contains a horticulture title that includes provisions addressing several regulatory issues important to production agriculture: Clean Water Act, ESA, Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, and biotechnology regulation. Under the Plant Protection Act, the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to regulate the introduction and cultivation of biotechnology products if the product poses a plant pest risk.

Within the House Agriculture Committee’s 550-page 2012 farm bill discussion draft is a Horticulture Title that includes provisions addressing several regulatory issues important to production agriculture.

The bill’s Horticulture Title includes H.R. 872, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act, which would eliminate the permitting requirement under the Clean Water Act for certain pesticide applications. This requirement is the result of a court ruling in 2009. The NCC believes this is a costly and duplicative regulatory burden that provides no additional environmental protection. H.R. 872 passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 292–130 on March 31, 2011.

The bill also includes a provision that would prevent EPA from initiating a modification or cancellation of a pesticide registration based on the Biological Opinions (BiOps) of the National Marine Fisheries Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service (“the Services”) until an unbiased, external scientific, peer review of these BiOps can be conducted and the scientific questions challenging the validity of these consultations can be resolved. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires all federal agencies to consult with the Services on all federal actions; pesticide registration is considered a federal action. Because of its extensive risk assessments for registrations which include effects on endangered species, EPA, in the past, has believed that its ESA obligations were satisfied. Anti-pesticide organizations have sued EPA in several cases and the courts have ordered these consultations to proceed under an expedited schedule. The results of these consultations to date are BiOps, which the EPA has testified are scientifically suspect.

The bill also includes the third reauthorization of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, a multi-year effort by pesticide manufacturers, non-governmental organizations and the EPA to provide additional resources through user fees for registration activities in return for a more predictable registration process.

Finally, the bill includes a provision reiterating that the sole and exclusive authority of the Secretary of Agriculture to regulate biotechnology products under the Plant Protection Act is to be limited to the evaluation of plant pest risk. That provision also outlines the environmental reviews to satisfy other federal statutes. Under the Plant Protection Act, the Secretary is authorized to regulate the introduction and cultivation of biotechnology products if the product poses a plant pest risk. When a petition for non-regulated status is received, a comprehensive plant pest risk assessment is conducted. Once it is determined that the product poses no plant pest risk, a final decision is made to deregulate the product.

Recent court decisions involving Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets have required USDA to complete exhaustive environmental impact statements even after these crops had been deregulated and in commercial production. These challenges have strained USDA resources, imposed millions of dollars in unnecessary costs and endangered the United States’ leadership role in biotechnology. The court orders also have significantly slowed the regulatory process; recent petitions for deregulation have taken several years although USDA regulations set a maximum limit of 180 days.

Several grain trade members have sent a letter of opposition to this latter provision to Chairman Lucas (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Peterson (D-Minn.) on the grounds that expediting the deregulation process would increase the likelihood of disruption in the domestic and export grain flow through comingling of functional traits such as amylase corn or traits not yet approved in import countries.

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