By Erik Olson and Mae Wu, Natural Resources Defense Council
From farmers plowing their fields as dawn breaks to harried parents putting food on the dinner table at the end of a busy day, we all want our food to be safe, healthy, and readily available. From farm to fork, our food system should be something we can be proud of.
Unfortunately, the 641-page Farm Bill introduced last week by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Conaway (R-TX) would undercut this vision. The Conaway bill is the product of an intensely-partisan process that froze the minority out of negotiations and put the chemical industry and corporate agriculture in the driver’s seat. Small farmers, consumers, and hungry families were left out in the cold. The results show it.
Rather than reducing the use of dangerous pesticides that end up in our food, seep into our streams, rivers and oceans, and harm people and endangered species, the bill encourages profligate pesticide use. Instead of helping people having a tough time putting food on the table, it makes healthy food less affordable and accessible to struggling families. Rather than addressing the urgent need to reduce the waste of food or the loss and destruction of soil health, the bill largely ignores these critical issues, as my colleagues will discuss.
In America, no parent should have to choose between putting wholesome, nutritious food on the table and keeping the lights on. Protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the National School Lunch Program is critical to ensuring that healthy, nutritious food is available to every family.
The House bill contains a tractor load of bad ideas guaranteed to invite controversy and delay in the Senate. A few examples of the partisan, harmful, and completely avoidable controversies that could impede passage of the 2018 Farm Bill include:
- Preempting Local Pesticide Protections. The bill would prohibit local governments from adopting pesticide laws that are more protective than federal rules. This provision, long a goal of the chemical corporations, would overturn decades of precedent and Supreme Court rulings, and could prevent communities from tailoring laws against harmful chemicals (state and local labeling and packaging requirements already are preempted). (Section 9101)
- Attacking Protections for Wildlife and Endangered Species from Pesticides. Pesticides are engineered to kill. Decades ago, Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons were brought to brink of extinction by the pesticide DDT; a ban of this pesticide enabled these majestic birds to thrive again. To address such issues, EPA is required under the Endangered Species Act to consult with the expert federal wildlife agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, when approving chemicals that can harm endangered species. The bill eliminates that requirement, threatening endangered wildlife and hindering recovery of imperiled species. (Section 9111)
- Exempting Pesticides from the Clean Water Act. The bill exempts pesticides applied directly to waterways from the Clean Water Act protections. The Clean Water Act permit is short and simple to obtain. Current law already allows pesticide applicators to spray in the event of a public health emergency before asking for a permit. However, the Clean Water Act does provide the public with critical information about the types of toxic chemicals being applied to our waters that we use for fishing, swimming, and our sources of our drinking water. It also protects impaired waterways from being further damaged. The bill would jettison those protections. (Section 9117)
- Expediting EPA Approval of Pesticides Without Agreed-to Protections. The bill would enact the “Pesticide Registration Improvement Act” in a form that provides long-term funding to EPA for expedited processing of pesticide approval applications, without accompanying measures to ensure that farmworkers and other pesticide applicators are safe. A short-term version of such legislation was negotiated with farmworker and nonprofit groups, but the language contained in the Conaway Farm Bill doesn’t include these provisions and is not supported by these groups. (Section 9119)
- Secretly Delaying EPA Pesticide Protections. State pesticide regulatory agencies often are closely allied with the agricultural chemical corporations. The bill provides these agencies a secret chance to slow or effectively veto EPA pesticide protections before they become public or are even proposed. The bill requires that before EPA can propose or finalize any pesticide rules, state pesticide agencies must be notified, provided a chance to object or argue against the rules, and EPA must respond before moving ahead with any action—a formula for delay and possible death of the rules through secretive political pressure. (Section 9101)
- Weakening Protections Against the Highly-Toxic Pesticide Methyl Bromide. The bill weakens restrictions on the pesticide methyl bromide, which Cornell University reports is “extremely toxic vapor…. About 1,000 human poisoning incidents caused by methyl bromide exposure have been documented, with effects ranging from skin and eye irritation to death.” It also is a powerful ozone depleter, threatening the earth’s ozone layer that was originally supposed to be phased out by 2000. The bill allows up to 20 metric tons of methyl bromide to be used for any “emergency” event. The incredibly broad definition of emergency opens it up to widespread abuse. (Section 9121)
- Restricting Access to Food for Struggling Families Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill restricts nutrition assistance under the SNAP program through new work requirements, making it even harder for individuals living in poverty to escape food insecurity. This highly controversial measure targets food access for our most vulnerable citizens, elevating partisanship and ideological purity over all else. (Subtitle A)
- Weakening Low-Income Kids’ Access to Fresh Fruits and Vegetables in School.The current school food program provides special funding to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to kids in schools in low-income communities. The bill weakens this program, allowing schools to instead buy junk food including canned foods, purees, and dried fruits, with no restrictions on added sugar, salt, or fats, defeating the entire purpose of encouraging kids to eat healthy fresh fruits and vegetables. (Section 4204)
- Eliminating Key Conservation Programs. The bill eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program. The CSP promotes whole farm stewardship and sustainability across rural communities. Elimination of the popular CSP will leave farmers with fewer resources and options to implement conservation on their farms. (Section 2801)
- Allowing Mining and Oil & Gas Drilling on Agricultural Conservation Lands. The bill allows “mineral exploration” (usually defined to include mining as well as oil and gas development) on lands in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The program was created to preserve agricultural lands as working farms. This provision would allow mining and oil and gas companies to extract resources from lands even though conservation easements funded by taxpayers were supposed to protect the same land. (Section 2603)
- Weakening Endangered Species, Other Environmental Protections from Unfettered Logging. The bill contains numerous “categorical exclusions” which would allow for large scale land management projects to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It even removes critical habitat, wilderness areas or determinations under the Endangered Species Act as “extraordinary circumstances” that would require adherence to NEPA. Furthermore, it waives requirements to consult with the USFWS and NMFS on impacts of timber cutting on endangered species. This will lead to the selloff of our national forests without even basic public input and could impede the recovery of endangered species. (Subtitle C including Sections 8303-8321, 8503)
The House Republican Farm Bill would undermine protections for public health, make it harder for struggling families to put food on the table, and weaken environmental protections for endangered species, forests, and working lands. This is one bill that deserves to be plowed under.