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 has taken campaign donations from many agriculture trade and lobby groups, including the National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, American Soybean Association, and the Iowa Corn Growers Association, and from many agribusiness companies including Cargill, Syngenta, Dean Foods, Land O’ Lakes, and Tyson Foods.
When introducing an earlier version of this bill, King said it would increase consumer choice and prevent states from interfering with the trade of agricultural goods from other states. The bill is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Timing is crucial for this bill, which could be adopted into the “big vehicle that is the farm bill,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of advocacy group Food & Water Watch. She says that the bill could be attached to the omnibus legislation during hearings or markups. Rep. King sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which will have to approve the Farm Bill before it is considered by the rest of Congress.
This type of federal preemption isn’t without precedent. In 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring foods produced with genetic engineering carry a “GMO” label. The law was the first of its kind in the country, and it frustrated food manufacturers who were forced to adopt new labeling practices to meet the state’s standard. After years of pitched debate between consumer groups and food manufacturers, in August 2016 President Obama signed into law a new federal GMO labeling standard that preempted Vermont’s standard. The federal law came just two months after Vermont’s law went into effect.
And over the past several years, 29 states have passed preemption laws that block city and county governments from adopting rules on the use of seeds, including potential bans on GMO seeds. Those preemption laws were modeled after a bill written by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Many advocates say that a catalyst for this year’s preemption battle is California’s adoption of more stringent animal welfare requirements. In 2015, the state implemented standards requiring hens, pigs, and calves to be able to stand up and extend their limbs. That year, the state also began requiring that eggs imported from out of state meet the state’s animal welfare guidelines for hens. Those standards have angered conventional meat and egg companies, who don’t want to tailor their offerings on a state-by-state basis.
“Essentially what agribusiness wants is one system, all over the country,” says Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “They don’t want a situation where standards are higher in a particular state, [which could] make it harder for their product to compete in those states.”
Rep. King’s legislation has five co-sponsors, including three who sit on the House Agriculture Committee.