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Regulatory Lag Can Stifle Innovation in Agriculture, Forum Told

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2017 – The last 10 years have seen “a remarkable rise in cost and the time it takes to approve” new agricultural innovations, at least in part because of added regulatory constraints, Illinois farmer Mark Scholl, chairman of the Farm Foundation board, told a forum on food and agricultural regulations here today.

Scholl, who farms a 4,000-acre cash grain operation that exports directly to Japan, was one of three panelists at a foundation-sponsored discussion at the National Press Club about the implications of President Trump’s executive order to reduce the number of federal regulations.

In 2000, approval of a new agricultural chemical required about $184 million and took nine years, he said. “Now it’s $284 million and 11 years.”

Introduction of improved crop varieties has encountered similar delays in Scholl’s experience with a seed company focused on commercialization of value-added grains. In the late 1980s, it may have required about seven years to commercialize a new corn variety, he said. “Now, it takes 15, 16, or 17 years to get it out.”

Not only does the long lead time add to the cost, but it hampers innovation, he said.

Scholl cited the example of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium gene that confers insect resistance in corn. Improvement in Bt genes is not keeping pace with the resistance developed by insect pests, he said. “The bug is outrunning the Bt moving forward. That has brought about the consequence of using more chemistry – the opposite of why we started using genetics.”

“What bothers me the most is the lack of innovation,” he said. Nevertheless, Scholl sees the future of crop agriculture as cause for optimism. With precision agriculture techniques and a U.S. infrastructure “unlike anything else,” agriculture has “the ability to make products we couldn’t do in the past,” he said. “Human capital is much better. People are much smarter. There are lots of talented young people in agriculture today. The capability for change is massive.”

The president’s directive to reduce regulations and control regulatory costs will have a major impact on USDA, said Rebeckah Adcock, senior adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who has been appointed the department’s regulatory reform officer.

The effort is aimed at learning that “there are better ways to do what we have been doing,” she said. “We are beginning in earnest.”

The list of deregulation and streamlining of regulations has begun in a few areas, she said, such as the relaxation of nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program earlier this year. “But we will see the list grow exponentially over time.”

USDA’s contribution to the spring regulatory agenda to be released by the Office of Management and Budget will showcase a few additional areas of regulatory streamlining, she said, but significantly more can be expected when the semiannual regulatory agenda is finalized in the fall.

The agenda was welcomed by Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, this year’s president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA).

The initiative is an opportunity for “a renewed focus on sound science,” he said. “I’m real excited about this. We must embrace all aspects of sound science.”

Strain said he was thankful that USDA had delayed implementation of an organic livestock and poultry regulation that would have required poultry and egg producers to allow birds greater access to outdoor spaces where, he said, they would be vulnerable to disease. “We are only two years since the largest outbreak of avian influenza in history, and here we are (with the outdoor requirement) doing exactly what we said we shouldn’t do.”

Written by Jim Webster for Agri-Pulse Communications.

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