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Monday, July 2, 2012

Environmental Regulation and Agriculture

Megan Stubbs, Coordinator
Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

As the U.S. and global economies continue to struggle, some inside and outside of Congress have expressed concern about how environmental regulation may stifle growth and productivity. Much of the criticism has focused on environmental regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some claim that EPA is overreaching its regulatory authority and imposing costly and burdensome requirements on society. The agriculture community, among others, has been vocal in its concerns, contending that EPA appears to be focusing some of its recent regulatory efforts on agriculture. Environmental advocates, on the other hand, support many of EPA’s overall regulatory efforts to protect public health and the environment. Where agriculture contributes to environmental impairment, these groups say, it is appropriate to consider ways to minimize or eliminate the adverse impacts.

A healthy agriculture industry and a healthy environment are both important to the nation. However, agricultural production can have varying impacts on the environment. The use of both natural resources and synthetic inputs in agricultural production can sometimes create a negative impact on human health and the surrounding ecosystem. The magnitude of these environmental impacts varies widely across the country and changes over time. Given the agricultural sector’s size and potential to affect its surrounding environment, there is interest in tightening environmental policies while also maintaining an economically viable industry. Most recognize the agriculture community’s efforts to protect natural resources while striving to maintain a sustainable and abundant food supply.

The current federal response to environmental issues associated with agriculture is viewed as being both restrictive and supportive. Traditionally, farm and ranch operations have been exempt or excluded from many environmental regulations. The challenges and complexity of regulating numerous crop and livestock operations can be cost-prohibitive for government regulators; thus environmental policies have historically focused on large industrial sources such as factories and power plants, not farms. Much of the current farm policy addressing environmental concerns is through economic incentives to encourage beneficial production practices.

Growing interest in the impact of EPA’s regulatory actions on many sectors of the economy is evident in Congress, which has been examining the roles of EPA and other federal agencies in regulating environmental protection. Among the broad options for Congress, besides conducting general oversight, are reviewing rules under the Congressional Review Act, amending current law to modify an agency’s authority, introducing freestanding legislation, or using appropriations bills to prevent funds from being used for specific actions.

The majority of environmental regulations that could affect agriculture are administered by EPA, though not all. In some cases, agriculture is the direct or primary focus of the regulatory actions. In other cases, agriculture is one of many affected sectors. Of particular interest to agriculture are regulatory actions affecting air, water, energy, and chemicals. Issues associated with air (e.g., dust and emissions) and water quality (e.g., fertilizer and nutrient run-off) are a primary focus of many regulations affecting agriculture because of agriculture’s potential to affect these resources. Changes in energy policy, namely bioenergy, have recently become important to many in the agricultural industry based on the potential of corn-based biofuel production to contribute to the nation’s energy supply. The risks associated with agricultural chemical use and possible impacts on human health and the environment have also led to recent federal regulatory reviews of chemical fertilizer and pesticide use.

Date of Report: June 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 47
Order Number: R41622
Price: $29.95
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