04 February 2011

Too Much Regulation in California Agriculture?

Too many regulations, contradictory regulations, too much paperwork, rules that are way too complex, compliance costs that are out of proportion with benefits - such sentiments are echoed by some of our cooperators and what I hear in (often groundwater-related) farm meetings, particularly with respect to the dairy industry. What do we do about it?

I would second - from my own experience - the problem of non-communication/mis-communication/non-coordination between local and state agencies, between local and local agencies within and between counties, and between state agencies, each bringing its own personality and expertise to the table. The worst is the same state agency with the same rules, but different offices, or different officers enforcing different standards - the California Regional Boards being one example often cited.

On the other hand, I also see that there is often little understanding (and not seldom little effort to understand) by the landowners/farmers for the admittedly complex environmental issues that agriculture is naturally embedded in.

This is not always the fault of the landowner, often this is an issue of a lack of available extension/training - and sometimes the "solution" is simply not handy. For dairies more so than for other farming, the issue of ignorance/education/lack of information is furthermore a structural issue: given that the dairy industry is indeed still primarily a family farming business (which the general population is strongly supportive of, as opposed to "corporate" ag business), the (technical/intellectual/human resources) capacity of the entrepreneur are necessarily limited as leadership comes largely out of the existing family. Yet, a dairy is really not unlike a city with a mind-boggling array of issues needing increased attention in a policy climate that requires attention to economic benefits, ag-urban/consumer relations, and ag-environmental relations: animal health, animal reproduction, animal management, nutrition, food quality, food safety, waste management, forage production, irrigation, air quality, water quality, pest control,.....

In this last decade a number of stars have aligned in an unprecedented manner "against" agriculture: the 2002 sunset on discharge waivers granted to nonpoint source dischargers under the Porter-Cologne Act, EPA TMDL enforcement (which is mostly targeting nonpoint source surface water polluters) stepped up, air quality and global change issues coming to the forefront of global politics and science funding, microbial source identification and public health reporting systems now capable of detecting food illness outbreaks and tracking to their sources with ever increasing accuracy and detection sensitivity. 

Combined, this has put enormous regulatory pressure on agriculture in ways that other economic sectors first experienced in the late 1960s through 1980s as the US and Europe began regulating environmental impacts.

I sense that we are only at the beginning of a major revolution of doing agricultural business. Environmental regulation will increase, not decrease, as the need for sustainability in agriculture becomes more apparent, better defined, and agricultural management practices advance. It will take a couple of decades to sort this out both, at the farm/owner/business level and at the regulatory landscape/agency level. The challenge of nearly doubling global food production over the next three decades will put yet another spin on this. Some farmers ask to role back the overwhelming amount of regulation. The key question, however, is how we can cut through the current seemingly chaotic jungle of regulations most efficiently toward a streamlined version, without sacrificing the intent of the legislative framework in place.

Answers to this question must correspondingly address both, the farm management/business operations level and the regulatory level.

While it seems daunting, the upshot of working through this headache is that California has an opportunity to lead in creating a new agriculture model for the US and globally - and that California, in the process of doing just that, will be creating knowledge and technical experience that is exportable and will create new business opportunity not only for the state's ag engineering, ag consulting, etc. businesses, but also for the state's agriculture.

This said, one comment I have also heard from cooperators is this:  environmental regulations are not the issue - as long as they apply to everyone equally, i.e., as long as the playing field is level. This points to the issue of compliance cost in California vs. other states. Once California has figured out how to run agriculture in an environmentally sustainable manner and within an effective and efficient regulatory framework, California's task needs to be to see the latter exported across the country. If we are demonstrably successful with creating an effective, yet streamlined regulatory framework for agriculture, I imagine the political forces will be such that nationwide adoption would follow suit as it has with so many other things in the past - that should be an additional incentive for the regulatory/planning agencies at the state level to do their share towards such streamlining.

One major obstacle in the way of streamlining regulation is the lack of funding for a systematic, centralized and comprehensive regulatory approach to agriculture that is not unnecessarily burdensome to the individual farm. Not only is the regulatory landscape highly balkanized, so is agriculture itself.  With the state broke into the foreseeable future, the public's lack of interest in raising either taxes or fees, the funding is being raised within each of the little fighting blocks. Hence, each little block wants its own say in how the money is spent to set regulation on one hand, and to (minimally) comply with regulations on the other.

An example: the dairy industry just barely passed an industry-wide vote to tax itself to create a dairy groundwater monitoring coalition. Funding is raised to install a regional monitoring well network on a select number of dairies through this coalition in lieu of the state dealing with a monitoring well network on each of 1,400 dairies. The network is intended to be expanded in the future. The idea is to intensively monitor management practices on a number of dairies to define successful management practices (with success measured by groundwater monitoring wells). A consulting firm is currently working on the network design and presumably will be evaluating the results.

In contrast, in Holland, a national research lab associated with their national EPA, has installed an extensive soil and groundwater monitoring network on over 1,000 farms across Holland, all of which are part of a group of 6,000 farms that report detailed numbers about their business/farm management practices to the federal ag statistics service. The networks were designed by scientists and are sampled, analyzed, and evaluated by scientists of the national lab. Trends, relationship to farm practices, etc. are scrutinized, recommendations prepared, which then go to the national ag department and the legislature, which sets five-year frameworks for regulations regarding farm management practices.

Our challenge is then, perhaps, not only to define a more unified/streamlined approach toward regulation, regulatory compliance, and enforcement in agriculture, but - just as important - to define a funding model that gets rid of the balkanization on both sides. Do we need to look to Europe for learning some of that?


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