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Health care, regulation cited as critical factors for American agriculture

A good dose of common sense would go a long way toward curing the ills that grip Washington, DC, says American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.

Stallman, A Texas farmer and keynote speaker at the recent 21st annual Texas Plant Protection Association Conference in College Station, said he would like to bring some good news to the assembly. “But currently, there’s not much of that coming out of Washington.”

Stallman cited legislation aimed at climate change, clean water, biotechnology, estate taxes, health care, immigration and budgets as issues of interest to Farm Bureau and rural America.

“The climate bill will make things more difficult for farmers,” Stallman said. “So a major effort of the American Farm bureau will be to make certain climate change legislation does not pass in a form that will hurt American agriculture.”

He said carbon sequestration and the possibility of farmers getting paid for practices that decrease the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere comes with a few advantages but a load of concern.

Agricultural producers could get paid for things like no-till production, he said. “That would be positive for crops that can sequester carbon.” He said rice and cotton farmers will not be among beneficiaries.

He also cautioned that the price of energy under cap and trade legislation likely will rise and that new energy sources—wind, solar and nuclear—will take decades to develop to the point where they can fill the gap created by restricting coal and oil use.

He said agriculture could lose acreage because of carbon sequestration. Trees, he said, sequester more carbon than do row crops and if carbon prices reach $65 per ton, the advantage of planting trees could result in a 20 percent reduction in cropland.

“That does not sound like a good plan,” he said. “Commodity prices could rise but our industry would be smaller. We are working with the U.S. Senate to fix the problems in the climate legislation (passed by the House). It will be hard to do with mandatory caps.”

He said the Clean Water Restoration Act also poses problems for agriculture. Changes in terminology from previous laws broaden the range of the act to include more than navigable waters and could encompass waters that flow into navigable streams. Stallman said that could mean bar ditches filled with rain water or driveways that drain into streams.

“This is an example of regulatory over reach,” he said.

He said the National Cotton Council versus EPA Supreme Court case, from the 6th Circuit Court, also adds layers of regulation “to approved chemicals. I’m not sure what chance we have,” he said. “It’s difficult to prevail in the Supreme Court.”

He said a general permitting system could provide some relief from a ruling that would consider a spray nozzle a “point source.”

Stallman said a challenge to registration of transgenic alfalfa also could hamper technology development. The challenge is based on the premise that no environmental impact study was performed before approving transgenic alfalfa.

Stallman says environmental impacts take years to complete and would “hamper development of products we need.”

He said congress likely will take action to retain the estate tax when current law expires next year. “Several bills are around.” He expects some form of the estate tax to remain and said the industry needs clarification as soon as possible. “We don’t want uncertainty,” he said. “We need to know the rules so farm families can make informed decisions.”

He said the health care proposals currently under debate “have faults,” but that rural health care needs improvements. “It’s often a long way in rural America to critical care,” he said, “and it’s hard to get doctors into rural communities.”

But he said the American Farm Bureau does not believe a government run health plan that competes with private insurance companies is a good idea. “I think we will see a health care bill passed and it will probably increase taxes without improving health care. There are solutions out there that we could work on.”

Stallman said the budget deficit causes him “to worry about what our grandchildren will face. “We have to do something. Options are to raise taxes or cut spending and neither party has been good at reducing spending.”

He said the budget will be a critical issue for farm policy, “We expect more attempts to cut program payments,” he said. “We have $11 billion in program payments this year. That’s a reduction.”

He said neither trade nor immigration reform have received the attention they need under the Obama Administration. “Immigration is a hot button political issue and a lightning rod for both the left and the right. We need labor in agriculture but I’m not optimistic that anything will happen in 2010.”


TAGS: Legislative
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