Although predicting the future is always a risky exercise, making predictions about the direction of agricultural policy in 2016 is outright foolish. Let’s face it—2016 is a wildcard. As proof, I only need to note the orange guy from “The Apprentice” is leading the polls for the GOP nomination as I write this. With that said, 2016 will be an important year for agricultural policy. Here are a few of the issues that will impact farmers and the ag industry in the coming year:
- Obama’s last year. Presidents tend to use their last year in office to shore up their legacy and tie up loose ends. It’s unlikely President Barack Obama will pursue any new major legislative initiatives during 2016. However, the Obama Administration has a number of regulatory initiatives it intends to implement in 2016. Of note for agriculture are the regulations implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act. While the major regulations were finalized in 2015, how these rules are actually applied to agriculture and food processors will be largely shaped in 2016.
Also, no American politician is less accountable to voters than a lame-duck president after voters have selected a replacement. As we saw with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, I would not be surprised to see executive orders on public land use restrictions or endangered species listings during the last few days of the president’s term.
- Trade. Free trade is an area where the President and the Republican-controlled Congress appear to agree in principle. However, the devil is always in the details. Such is the case with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While the TPP is favorable for most of the ag sector, provisions related to tobacco products and intellectual property appear to be holding up Congressional approval. While Congress might vote on the TPP, it’s likely they will wait out Obama’s term in hopes of having a Republican partner in the White House in 2017.
- WOTUS. The “Waters of the U.S.” rule is currently being held up by a stay issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. It will take a while for the federal court system to work through the numerous legal attempts to halt implementation of the over-reaching WOTUS rule. Agriculture can breathe a temporary sigh of relief because it’s unlikely these lawsuits will be resolved this year.
- Immigration. It’s unlikely we will see any major changes in our immigration system in 2016. Congress has made it clear they intend to wait out Obama’s term. Several presidential candidates have also made immigration a top issue in the 2016 campaign. While taking a hard line might be smart politics, it does nothing to fix the current labor situation in agriculture, which relies heavily on undocumented workers.
- GMO labeling. Unless the federal courts stop it, Vermont is poised to become the first state in the nation to require GMO labeling on July 1. Vermont’s law is bad policy, raises food costs and is nearly impossible to comply with. It appears Congress might come together to pass legislation that would preempt state GMO labeling measures. However, this legislation might also contain some compromise measures, such as a mandated phase-in of QR code “smart labels” that would indicate whether products are produced with genetic modification. This will require greater efforts to educate consumers on what genetic modification is and is not.
- Ethanol policy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released new requirements for ethanol blending for 2014, 2015 and 2016 that fall short of the Renewable Fuel Standard’s (RFS) statutory mandate. Ethanol proponents claim the shortfall violates RFS requirements. Meanwhile, EPA asserts the shortfall is authorized under the RFS’s waiver provision because gasoline consumption is lower than was anticipated when the RFS was enacted in 2007. The courts might ultimately decide who is right.
- 2016 election. Who knows?