By Leah Douglas, February 27, 2018
A vast body of state laws regulates farming, from monitoring agricultural pollution and farm runoff, to pesticide applications, labor rules, and animal welfare. But many of those regulations could be subject to challenge if recently proposed legislation in Congress becomes law. The skirmish over the new legislation is the latest in a long series of fights about who is best suited to regulate food production, processing, and labeling—the federal government, or the states. This time, the fight could make it all the way to the farm bill.
Sixty-four agriculture and rural organizations have joined forces to oppose the Protect Interstate Commerce Act, introduced in January by Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, that would prohibit states from passing regulations that affect agricultural production in other states, or that exceed existing federal law.
The law would also allow any producer, consumer, trade association, business, or government agency to challenge, and potentially invalidate, regulations that affect agricultural production in other states, within a 10-year statute of limitations.
If the law passes, any state agricultural regulation that was passed in the prior decade could in theory be subject to federal challenge. The coalition fighting the bill includes several state Farmers Union chapters, farmworker organizations, organic agriculture groups, rural development organizations, and others.
In a Feb. 26 letter to Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, the coalition said the legislation “would limit consumer choice, negate the ability of local governments to protect citizens, and sacrifice market opportunities for family farmers, only to benefit a few corporate agribusiness interests.” The group argues that farmers and consumers benefit from state regulations that allow for product differentiation and transparency.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, says that allowing states to regulate agricultural production “doesn’t mean that the local folks always get the public policy right.” But, he says, “they are the folks that consistently have the best idea of what the local community wants its future to look like. And they’re the folks that have the most hands-on expertise over what these decisions actually mean” for the community.
Many farming communities have taken to their statehouse or local governments to push for regulations that mitigate the environmental and health effects of industrial farming. Arkansas last year banned the use of dicamba, after the pesticide damaged hundreds of thousands of acres of crops near fields where it was sprayed. Communities in Maryland and Kansas have sought state regulations to limit the development of farm complexes. Advocates in California just this week won an injunction on the spraying of pesticides in parks, schools, and other public properties.
Rep. King’s home state of Iowa was recently embroiled in a conflict about how to regulate farm runoff pollution. In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued several counties, alleging that farms in the counties were responsible for polluting the local watershed with nitrates. The city of Des Moines consequently spent $1.5 million on nitrate removal that year. The water utility sought to have the farming counties regulated under the Clean Water Act as point sources of pollution.
When the suit was dismissed in March 2017, it sparked an intense debate about who should oversee farm pollution and other farming activities. The judge who dismissed the case ruled that the state legislature, rather than the courts, would have to take up the issue of how to regulate farm pollution. That decision came just three months before Rep. King’s first introduction of a federal bill preempting state agricultural regulation.
Rep. King has long been a friend to conventional agriculture interests. Over the years, he hasRep. King’s legislation has five co-sponsors, including three who sit on the House Agriculture Committee.