U.S. agriculture is “facing some of the biggest changes we've ever seen in this country's history, both in terms of policy and markets,” says Jay Vroom, president, CropLife America, Washington.

While there “is a tremendous amount of leadership in Congress looking out for agriculture,” recent budget reconciliation and debt reduction actions “have taken a whack” out of funding for farm supports and other USDA programs, he said at the annual conference of the Southern Crop Production Association at Orlando, Fla.

In effect, he said, Congress has been rewriting the current farm bill “in fits and starts, on an almost-daily basis,” as they look for ways to reduce the federal deficit.

“U.S. spending on agricultural programs has already declined substantially over the past few years…and World Trade Organization pressures to move away from traditional farm production subsidies toward more spending on conservation incentives, will also have a considerable impact on our industry and our farm customers.

“We've already seen a big shift since the early 1990s on more dollars going to conservation incentives, wetlands, etc., than on traditional farm programs, and that trend will go further as we see the impact of the 2007 farm bill and WTO negotiations.”

Vroom, who serves as the U.S. crop protection industry's chief representative before congressional and regulatory bodies and international agriculture and industry organizations, says “a big challenge is to figure how our industry fits into this equation for conservation spending and the direction we need to take, from a policy standpoint, in Washington.”

A lot of the USDA dollars already spent on conservation were mostly for one-time, big ticket projects, he said. “That's helpful to local farm economies, but it likely isn't sustainable from a continuing cash flow standpoint. I think our industry needs to be looking at how we fit in terms of having a sustainable revenue stream through a recognition in policy that there is a role for our technologies in these conservation incentives, and how we can take advantage of those opportunities.”

One of the things CropLife has been doing is developing relationships with major conservation organizations, Vroom said.

“This year, our members have contributed more than $350,000 worth of pesticide technology for use by Ducks Unlimited and their conservation partners, primarily state/federal wildlife refuge managers, in restoring or establishing ducks habitat that's being threatened by invasive species. We've got some excellent publicity from this, and it's a great way to point out that pesticide technology can have an important role in helping to preserve habitat for wildlife.

“There's also a great story in terms of our role in energy conservation through reduced tillage and no-till operations, resulting in reductions in the amount of total energy required to produce crops, as well as contributing to the conservation of soil and water resources.”

The number of agchem products going off patent in relation to new products coming on the market is having an impact on the sector, Vroom said, as companies in both arenas try to influence policy.

“But, we have a general interest in working together to develop the best public policy and allow the marketplace to work in resolving these sorting-out issues. When our farmer customers are given the best technologies available — whether traditional chemistry or new biotech products — they can make these decisions year-in and year-out in a manner that allows the marketplace to work.”

CropLife's No. 1 short term issue, Vroom said, is sustaining the current voluntary container recycling program through the Agricultural Container Recycling Corporation.

“We've made participation in ACRC a condition of CropLife membership, and our industry has been very supportive of this. But we're at a point of crisis because of the growth of generic companies that aren't supportive of the ACRS container collection/stewardship program.”

Vroom said CropLife has asked the EPA to consider making container recycling a regulatory requirement at the federal level.

“We don't feel it's fair for our members to bear the burden of paying for everyone's container collection,” he said. Also, many state regulators are looking at making pesticide container recycling mandatory in their states.

“We think we'd be much better off having the EPA design a uniform national program…with ACRC as a satisfactory compliance mechanism, as opposed to a patchwork effort by states to force container recycling in a very haphazard manner.”

Addressing the issue of spray drift, Vroom said CropLife's position is that it should be a separate issue from the Clean Water Act, as proposed by the EPA.

“We need to have a clear regulatory policy that implements the risk standards and move away from the ‘one molecule drifting past the edge of a field and you're in court approach.’ We feel we should get back to focusing on what we've actually been doing for decades: managing risk…so it represents less and less a significant economic liability or regulatory liability for our industry and our customers.

“Our members have already invested more than $35 million for research to find better ways to manage and contain drift, and we've been recognized by the EPA for the reductions we've already achieved through our investments in research and development.”

Because of widespread lawsuits, many of them “frivolous,” Vroom said, “our industry has perhaps the largest potential liability exposure of any in the nation.”

CropLife is working with the EPA and members of congressional agriculture committees about revisions to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act “to restore some of the protection we've lost.

“We all have a common interest in policies that allow us to manage our liability in a manner that is predictable and maintain a viable business position,” Vroom said.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com