By Laura Temple
“Do I haaaave to?”
Such whining commonly is associated with kids avoiding homework or cleaning their rooms.
But business owners and leaders — including those in agriculture — often broadcast slightly more professional complaints with the proposal and implementation of new regulations.
Agriculture receives its fair share of regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies. These regulations come with good reasons to protect public interests, like food safety and resource conservation. But over-regulation is a common concern.
“Regulations provide certainty, a playbook or rulebook for agriculture to follow,” says Roger Bernard, senior policy analyst for IEG Vantage. “The industry needs regulations to make sure common sense is followed in areas like food safety, personal and worker safety and environmental safety. They prevent a patchwork of practices that can lead to less-than-desirable outcomes and uncertainty. Concern grows when regulations go beyond common sense.”
Many in agriculture anticipated regulatory relief under the Trump administration. One of the first executive orders issued instructed agencies to examine their regulations and determine what was needed and what could be rolled back.
“I’ve observed that over time the regulatory pendulum swings back and forth, sometimes toward more regulations, then back toward less regulations,” Bernard says. “In recent years, agriculture identified regulations and their costs among their biggest challenges. The current administration definitely is moving toward fewer regulations that impact the cost of doing business, and that’s one reason it has received strong support from a significant segment of agriculture.”
But when asked about the impact of this approach on agriculture, many voices in this article choose to focus on voluntary efforts that address issues under regulatory scrutiny in ways that support their business and underlying goals.
“I consider agricultural producers the first environmentalists,” Bernard explains. “Farmers and ranchers need healthy soil and clean water to produce the food and fiber that supplies the country. They voluntarily identify ways to benefit their operations and profitability.”
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy exemplifies the flexibility of voluntary efforts compared to regulations. This strategy outlines best practices to help Illinois producers reduce nutrient runoff from their fields and encourages adoption of those that best fit each field, according to the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP). Many Illinois agricultural organizations support this approach over state or national regulations.
It’s an approach that resonates throughout agriculture. Perspectives from four diverse producers and ranchers about regulations and voluntary efforts uncover similar themes where agriculture and public interests intersect.
Maria Cox raises soybeans, corn, cattle and hay near White Hall, Illinois. She joined the family farm as the sixth generation after college and a few years of off-farm experience. She asks questions about management practices and requirements to figure out ways to improve the farm.
“We use management practices that we believe will be best for our farm – not because of regulations. Curiosity and desire to continuously better care for our land while maintaining profitability drive changes on our farm more than regulations.”
On Voluntary Efforts
“We use cover crops to manage erosion and improve soil structure. We have much less nutrient runoff, and we haven’t seen any decrease in our cash crop yields. It’s been exciting to try new things and find what works best for our soil types and hilly ground. But our focus is improving our land and production.”
Connecting Ecology and Agriculture
Eric Mader farms in Washington state and works as the pollinator conservation co-director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international non-profit organization. He works with farmers to find a balance between species protection and productive farming.
“Regulations like those drawn from the Endangered Species Act have benefits and put a process in place to address complex issues. For example, declines in insect populations mirror declines in wildlife populations and biodiversity around the world. Agriculture is part of the reason, with use of insecticides and habitat loss to production.”
On Voluntary Efforts
“Showing clear economic benefits and return on investment for conservation practices that integrate conservation and restore biodiversity encourages farmers to participate in voluntary efforts. Wildlife benefits farms in several ways, including pollination, weed suppression and pest control. For example, our research documents how natural pollinator habitat increases yields.”
Establishing and Updating Science-Based Regulations
David Eliason, president of the Public Lands Council and fourth-generation commercial cattleman from Snowville, Utah, runs cattle on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service allotments. He sees many conflicts between agriculture and public interests, with regulations at the center.
“Regulations need to be balanced and based in science.
The current system allows them to be weaponized and used against agriculture, allowing judges and popular opinion to have more weight than science. Efforts to modernize key regulations, like the Endangered Species Act, benefit everyone and provide opportunities for collaboration. For grazing, red tape and rules put people out of business, but rollbacks of regulations have been successful.”
On Voluntary Efforts
“Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you. Often what is best for the land is also best for agriculture. For example, grazing manages plant biomass to help reduce potential fuel load for wildfires. We would value freedom to find win-win solutions like this on public land.”
Ensuring Food Safety
Cecil Pratt raises a wide variety of high-value irrigated vegetable seed crops, cotton and cattle near Yuma, Arizona. He also is on the county Farm Bureau board and teaches high school agriculture.
“Food safety comes with regulations intended to protect health. For example, FDA regulations provide a foundation to look at the source of E. coli outbreaks. Issues like this can come from both places we can control and places we can’t, but their findings can help farmers improve where we can.”
On Voluntary Efforts
“We choose management practices that make sense for our business — and food safety. Planting crops that animals like at the edges of our fields helps keep wildlife that could carry pathogens out of our high-value crops.”