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Obama…new tack on EPA regs and trade?

Now that the elections are over (praise be!), everyone and his dog will be theorizing what’s going to happen when the new administration and Congress sweep into Washington mid-January.

Depending on who’s doing the theorizing, the scenarios range from unbounded optimism to anything’s-better-than-now to outright gloom and doom.

While President-elect Obama’s campaign centered around change, that goal will be hampered to a large extent by an economy in the toilet and a myriad of other problems that will require superhuman effort, if not downright magic, to resolve.

A couple of comments along that line were offered, a few days prior to the election, by Hunter Moorhead, a Greenville, Miss., native who is special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade, and food assistance, and the Bush administration’s point person for agricultural issues.

“There is a fear,” he told members of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at their annual meeting, that under an Obama presidency “there would be more regulation of agriculture,” particularly with regard to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“There seems to be about as much worry in agriculture and agribusiness about EPA regulations as about the farm bill,” he said.

EPA, for decades, was the agency that agriculture loved to hate because of its onerous, often conflicting regulations and ham-handed enforcement, a situation the Bush administration set out to make less oppressive.

Moorhead said there is also an expectation that getting trade agreements passed would “be more difficult” under an Obama administration, with more emphasis on labor and environmental provisions.

Noting campaign rhetoric about reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade pacts, he cautioned, “We need to remember, that sort of thing can be a two-way street.

“One of the greatest things going for agriculture is exports. In 1996, everybody was happy about hitting $60 billion in farm exports; this year, we’re projecting $114 billion.

“Economies and lifestyles in other countries are constantly improving, generating additional demand for our products. We produce far more than we can use domestically, and if we don’t have trade agreements that allow U.S. farmers to fill this demand, other countries will be happy to do so.”

If the seemingly eternal DOHA trade round (the talks started in 2001) is ever concluded, it will require “new commitments” from U.S. agriculture, Moorhead said, and that would necessitate changes to the farm bill to accommodate those provisions.

There may also be changes to the legislation as a result of the federal budget reconciliation process, which requires spending cuts in all government programs, including agriculture.

“We don’t know where they would take the dollars, or how much, but every sector will be affected,” Moorhead said. “The first place they might look could be the ACRE (Average Crop Revenue Election) program, since it’s the new kid on the block in the farm bill and we don’t know how many people might participate.”

In the same conference, the ACRE program was described by Mississippi State University Economics Professor Keith Coble as an “enormously complex” program that will present Mid-South producers “a nasty, complicated” challenge in analyzing whether or not to participate.

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