The continued availability of agricultural chemicals used to protect crops from harmful pests and diseases is jeopardized from many angles. Costs rise as a result of intensive testing and regulatory requirements imposed by government on chemical manufacturers and formulators; environmental activists fly to court to seek bans on usage; consumers are smothered with emotional stories in the national media about exposure to dietary risk; and state funding is slashed for supportive university research and Extension.
Those in the specialty crop part of American agriculture are especially exposed to these problems. As federal regulatory and new chemistry discovery costs rise, it becomes more difficult for chemical companies to devote internal resources to those crops using much smaller quantities of their product than, say, corn or cotton. Many specialty crops are grown in areas of the country, such as Florida, California, and the Pacific Northwest, having special environmental issues—for example, those involving the strict application of the Endangered Species Act to salmon-carrying streams. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the target of most consumer health stories carried in the mass media related to chemical residues.
Federal legislative and regulatory policy issues involving specialty crops have needed, and remain in need of, concentrated attention. For this reason, the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance was formed in 1991 and continues its work to this day.
Significant credibility in the work of the alliance has been achieved over the past 15 years. In Washington, D.C., both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture trust and encourage the pesticide policy efforts of this grower-driven coalition. Committees of Congress listen to its voice.
The Minor Crop Farmer Alliance comprises over 30 state, regional, and national agricultural trade associations and commissions. These range from the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine to the Michigan Vegetable Council and from the Florida Tomato Exchange to the Idaho Potato Commission.
At the national level, U.S. Apple Association, Society of American Florists, Produce Marketing Association, and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives are among those groups that actively support and fund the alliance.
The Minor Crop Farmer Alliance does not have an office or a staff. It neither pays its volunteer leadership nor reimburses board members for any routine travel expenses. Its main annual expense is for legal advice, given over the alliance’s history by Ed Ruckert of the Washington, D.C., law office of McDermott Will & Emery. Its funds are shepherded by the United Fresh Produce Association.
With many decisions by the federal government of late appearing to be driven by a bias against the use of conventional pesticides, there has been much interaction this year by the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance with the agricultural chemical policy makers within President Obama’s administration. Dan Botts, vice president, industry resources, for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, leads these efforts as chairman of the alliance’s Technical Committee. His committee benefits from the active involvement of numerous technical experts from throughout the nation’s specialty crop industry, including Dr. Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council.
An ever more important role of the Technical Committee is its work on international harmonization of chemical residue standards. This activity is under the watchful eye of an international subcommittee chaired by Jim Cranney, who also serves as president of the California Citrus Quality Council.
Keeping export markets open to U.S. agricultural products is normally left to the specific commodity involved, working in close cooperation with such agencies as USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In the case of technical standards such as MRLs (maximum chemical residue levels legally allowed on a given food), it makes sense to work with other commodities, registrants, and governmental advocates for a sensible rules-based system covering each country targeted for significant U.S. exports. This complicated process is fostered by the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance. Work in Canada, Taiwan, Japan, and the European Union is ongoing in terms of setting transparent, international-trade–friendly MRL standards. This work ultimately benefits both consumers (lower prices, greater variety of food at market, and safe produce) and our growers and shippers (an expansion of overseas markets and greater clarity as to which registered agricultural chemicals might be used without export market disruptions).
The Minor Crop Farmer Alliance is a good example of a cooperative effort where funds and staff time are used quietly but effectively to address a knotty set of policy issues directly affecting the ability of growers and packers to have access to affordable and safe crop protection tools—those necessary to combat the pests and diseases that lurk about, threatening devastation and ruin.