Farmers and ranchers need relief from regulatory burdens.
Drive the gravel roads around Eldora, Iowa, and eventually you run smack dab into the Iowa River and rancher Dave Petty. This self-described "guardian of the river" grazes his cattle along nearly four miles of the recreational waterway praised by fun-loving rafters and fisherman alike.
A horseman who started his diversified farm in 1973, Petty considers himself partly responsible for the healthy waterway. As former chair of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) Environmental Working Group and member of the federal government’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee, Petty has testified on Capitol Hill about how preserving natural resources is a priority for ag producers.
Farmers have a vested interest in keeping the land healthy and productive, water and air clean, and wildlife abundant while maintaining diverse ecosystems, he says.
Rein It In. Petty says stricter government regulations block farmers from doing what they do best: producing an abundance of healthful food for the world. Federal policy regarding clean water and air needs to be reined in, Petty says, just as you would a horse who gets a little ahead of himself.
"Every day, our industry has to adapt to the weather conditions and natural disasters that threaten our natural resources," Petty says. "But misinterpretation and misapplication of food and environmental laws are an even bigger challenge. We get penalized, while in reality, our industries are getting better at working with the environment."
Compared to 1977, beef production today results in 16.3% fewer carbon emissions; takes 33% less land; and requires 12% less water, according to a study by Jude Capper, PhD, of Washington State University. All of this is achieved today with 30% fewer beef cattle in the U.S.
The realm of regulatory laws that farmers must adhere to reaches from the Earth to the sky and the air in between. Always a hot topic in Washington is "regulatory overreach," says Ashley McDonald, NCBA deputy environmental counsel.
Regulating Earth to Sky. This phrase has been the battle cry for many industries during the past few years, and the cattle industry is no exception, McDonald says.
Because concentrated animal feeding operations are one of the top two enforcement priorities for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the cattle industry has seen an attack from all sides.
"We are fighting issues from dust and greenhouse gas regulation to preventing your ditches and dry washes from becoming a ‘water of the United States,’" McDonald says. "EPA is a power-hungry bureaucratic machine, and it’s in their own self-interest to continue to stretch their authority and gain power over every aspect of our operations. War has no doubt been declared on both sides."
Most recently, the challenge for ranchers has been regulation of greenhouse gases (GHG). NCBA, along with the Coalition for Responsible Regulation, filed a petition in the United States Supreme Court this spring challenging EPA’s finding that GHGs endanger public health. EPA’s finding provided it the foundation from which to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act.
This allows regulation of all sources throughout the economy, including farming and ranching operations. By 2016, the agency might require that farmers and ranchers obtain permits for their emissions. Recently, NCBA beat back an effort by EPA to double the stringency of the current standard regulating dust emissions from farms, which would have subjected cattle producers to expensive regulations and fines for driving down a dirt road or cattle moving in pens.
"The Clean Air Act is not an appropriate vehicle to regulate greenhouse gases, and we are certain this manipulation of the Act goes against congressional intent," McDonald says. "Once again, EPA continues to promulgate regulations that have a negative impact on producers’ ability to provide safe and affordable food."
Sitting on Technology. Many farmers and ranchers like Petty believe that regulations have made it more difficult to help produce food in an efficient manner. Today, regulators are simply sitting on several new technologies that could increase crop yields, grow healthier animals and reduce carbon emissions.
In livestock production, antibiotic technology to improve feed efficiency, animal health and promote growth is under increasing scrutiny. Legislation before Congress would limit the use of medically important antibiotics on healthy livestock through mandatory restrictions, as well as public disclosure of how antibiotics are used on animals and in what quantity.
The meat industry contends that there is not enough evidence to support bans on antibiotics in food animals. It’s impossible to determine to what extent, if any, agricultural use might contribute to the problem.
According to Alexander Matthews, Animal Health Institute president and CEO, removal of antibiotics from animals’ feed and water "would lead to increased animal disease, a reduction in food safety and gain little, if anything, in the effort to control resistance." He suggests developing "prudent use principles."
Today, there is a movement to reduce at least the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals raised for food. Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Foster Farms, which collectively produce a third of the chicken Americans eat, have declared intentions to greatly reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to healthy chickens.
Regulation of technology is not just impacting cattle producers. Take the government’s treatment of the Enlist Weed Control System. The system combines new herbicide-tolerant crops with an advanced herbicide. The system would boost productivity and generate significant economic rewards, and according to manufacturer Dow AgroSciences, it would protect up to $2.5 billion
in net farm income threatened by herbicide-resistant weeds.
Yet USDA has kept this technology in regulatory purgatory for nearly four years—even though the regulatory approval process is supposed to take just 180 days. The agency announced in May that it would prepare an assessment of the product’s possible environmental consequences.
Farm Responsibly. "Our industry continually evaluates the latest science to help in decisions to further conserve resources," Petty explains. "It’s our responsibility to operate as environmentally friendly as possible and to use tools made available through the conservation programs that will help us further strengthen a partnership with the government."
If farmers are to meet the growing global demand for food, they need a federal regulatory system that works with them, not against them.
The war is not yet won, McDonald adds: "Cattle producers must be outspoken about the measures we’ve put in place to protect the environment and how the U.S. cattle industry is more sustainable than anywhere else in the world. The knowledge gap does not reside with consumers alone. It’s prevalent with regulators, congressmen and senators."