Recent efforts to update and tighten regulation of confined animal feeding operations, along with continuing controversy over federal Clean Water Act provisions and concern over air emissions from livestock facilities “point to a new era in which agriculture is at the center of environmental debates and initiatives.”

These new rules could tack on another $300 million-plus in costs for confined feeding operations each year.

These new pressures could have “powerful implications” for costs of production, industry competitiveness, and the structure of U.S. agriculture, says Mark Jekanowski, vice president, agricultural economist for Sparks Companies, Inc., who spoke at USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum at Arlington, Va.

“The regulatory environment faced by agriculture is rapidly changing, growing both in scope and severity,” he says.

Although the agricultural sector was once largely exempt from the full force of regulatory oversight, especially under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, “production agriculture is increasingly implicated by environmental groups and government agencies as an industry in need of tighter environmental control.”

Environmental and regulatory pressures facing agriculture “are unlikely to abate over the long term,” Jekanowski says, despite occasional political efforts to roll back regulatory oversight.

Rather, the forces leading to increased regulation “reflect structural changes occurring in agriculture at the same time the non-farm population is growing and becoming less attuned to the unique characteristics of farming.”

Additionally, he says, there is a widely-held belief within the Environmental Protection Agency and many environmental interest groups that existing efforts to regulate air and water emissions from industrial and municipal facilities — in place for more than 30 years — have largely achieved their goals.

The focus is “increasingly shifting” toward minimizing non-point source emissions, pollutants that enter the air or water bodies from general runoff from land, roads, and forests.

“Runoff from agricultural fields and livestock facilities, including fertilizer, manure, and pesticides, is often implicated as a primary contributor of non-source pollution,” Jekanowski says.

Regulating these non-point source emissions has been somewhat limited by “relatively primitive monitoring and measurement technology, especially since it is extremely difficult to identify a specific source of agricultural runoff that might travel long distances and across legal boundaries.”

As a result, he says, regulators tend to take a broad brush approach to rules for the agricultural sector, mandating or encouraging specific land uses and/or best management practices aimed at reducing runoff from all farms in a given area or watershed.

“This is the center of the EPA's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, which requires states to identify all impaired water bodies and identify measures to reduce the total amount of pollutants entering a body of water from any source, including agriculture.”

While the most recently-proposed rules for implementing the TMDL program, developed by the EPA in 2000, have never been enacted and are currently under review to be repealed, “the pressures that prompted the rule's development remain intact, and are likely to lead to continued scrutiny of agriculture as a source of water pollution concerns.”

On Dec. 15, 2002, the EPA released its long-awaited new rule governing the permit process for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). It will, Jekanowski says, apply primarily to large CAFOs, but it can also apply to some smaller operations if a man-made ditch of pipe carries manure or wastewater from the operation to surface water, or if confined animals come into contact with surface water running through the confinement area. The EPA has established size criteria for these large and medium CAFOs.

In addition, regardless of the size of the operation, the permitting authority could designate a livestock operation as a CAFO if an inspection determined that it threatened nearby surface waters.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.