The Ag Law Harvest

By:Jeffrey K. Lewis, Attorney and Research Specialist, Agricultural & Resource Law Friday, July 16th, 2021
Giant Panda chewing on bamboo stalk.

Did you know that Giant Panda cubs can be as small as a stick of butter?  A panda mother is approximately 900 times bigger than her newborn cub, which can weigh less than 5 ounces.  This is like an 8-pound human baby having a mother that weighed 7,200 pounds – this size difference may explain why so many panda cubs die from accidentally being crushed by their mothers.  However, not everything is doom and gloom for the Giant Panda.  Chinese officials have officially downgraded pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”  Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature re-labelled, the Panda as “vulnerable” in 2016, China wanted to make sure that the population of its national treasure continued to grow before downgrading the panda’s classification.  

Although it seems as though pandas are thriving thanks to conservation efforts in China, not all animal species in China are so lucky.  This week’s Ag Law Harvest takes a trip around the world to bring you domestic and international agricultural and resource issues.  We take a look at court decisions, Congress’ latest actions, China’s struggle with African Swine Fever, and President Biden’s latest executive order. 

Iowa Supreme Court Dismisses Raccoon River Lawsuit.  Environmental organizations (“Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa and its agencies (“Defendants”) asking the court to compel Defendants to adopt legislation that would require Iowa farmers to implement practices that would help reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Raccoon River.  The Plaintiffs argued that Defendants violated their duty under the Public Trust Doctrine (“PTD”), which is a legal doctrine that requires states to hold certain natural resources in trust for the benefit of the state’s citizens.  Defendants argued that Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.  The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Defendants and found that a ruling in Plaintiffs’ favor would not necessarily remediate Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, and therefore the Plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the lawsuit.  The Iowa Supreme Court also found that Plaintiffs’ issue was a nonjusticiable political question.  The political question doctrine is a principle that helps prevent upsetting the balance of power between the branches of government.  Under the doctrine, courts will not decide certain issues because they are better suited to be decided by another branch of government.  In this case, the court reasoned that Plaintiffs’ issue was better suited to be resolved through the legislative branch of government, not the judicial branch.  The Iowa Supreme Court decision is significant because, as it stands, agricultural producers in the Raccoon River Watershed will not be required to adopt any new practices but the decision leaves it up to Iowa’s legislature to determine whether farmers should be required to adopt new practices under the PTD to help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in Raccoon River.  

U.S. House of Representatives’ spending bill increases focuses on climate action and environmental protection.  Before the July 4th break, the United States House Appropriations Committee approved the first of its Fiscal Year 2022 (“FY22”) funding bills.  Included in these bills is the agriculture funding bill, which will be sent to the House floor for full consideration.  The bill provides $26.55 billion in the discretionary funding of agencies and programs within the USDA, FDA, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Farm Credit Administration – an increase of $2.851 billion from 2021.  In total, the agriculture funding bill includes $196.7 billion for both mandatory and discretionary programs.  The bill focuses on: (1) rural development and infrastructure – including rural broadband; (2) food and nutrition programs to help combat hunger and food insecurity; (3) international food assistance to promote U.S. agricultural exports; (4) conservation programs to help farmers, ranchers, and other landowners protect their land; (5) ag lending; (6) climate-related work to help research and remedy the climate crisis; and (7) enforcement of environmental programs.  The agriculture spending bill will, however, have to be reconciled with any spending bill produced by the U.S. Senate.

U.S. House Agriculture Committee advances rural broadband bill.  The House Agriculture Committee (the “Committee”) unanimously voted to advance the Broadband Internet Connections for Rural America Act (the “Act”), which would authorize $4.5 billion in annual funding, starting in fiscal year 2022, for the Broadband ReConnect Program (the “Program”) through fiscal year 2029.  The existing Program is set to expire on June 30, 2022.  To demonstrate Congress’ commitment to expanding rural broadband, the Program was only given $742 million in 2021.  It is unclear whether the Act will be included in the infrastructure package that is currently being negotiated between Congress and the White House.  Under the Act, the USDA must give the highest priority to projects that seek to provide broadband service to unserved communities that do not have any residential broadband service with speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.  The USDA will then prioritize communities with less than 10,000 permanent residents and areas with a high percentage of low-income families.

Small hog farmers in China no longer required to seek environmental approval.  China is the world’s largest pork producer and over the past few years, its hog herds have been decimated.  A deadly African Swine Fever (“ASF”) has wiped out about half of China’s hog herds, especially affecting small farmers.  According to Reuters, China relies heavily on small farmers for its pork output, but because of ASF, small farmers have been left with little to no product and mass amounts of debts.  Further, Chinese farmers are hesitant to rebuild their herds because ASF is an ongoing risk and farmers stand to lose everything if they continue to raise diseased hogs.  Addressing these concerns, China’s agriculture ministry will no longer require small hog farmers to get environmental approval from the government before breeding their hogs.  China hopes to reduce the costs and red tape for small farmers as China tries to incentivize small farmers to rebuild their hog herds.  African Swine Fever is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and feral swine.  The ASF poses no threat to human health but can decimate domestic hog populations.  Germany has recently reported its first two cases of ASF in domestic hogs.  Currently, ASF has not been found within the United States, and the USDA hopes to keep it that way.  To learn more about ASF, visit the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website

President Biden signs executive order to reduce consolidation in agriculture.  President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy seeks to address inadequate competition within the U.S. economy that the administration believes holds back economic growth and innovation.  The Order includes more than 70 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to promote competition.  With respect to agriculture, the Order seeks to break up agricultural markets “that have become more concentrated and less competitive.”  The Biden Administration believes that the markets for seeds, equipment, feed, and fertilizer are dominated by a few large companies which negatively impacts family farmers and ranchers.  The Biden Administration believes that the lack of competition increases the costs of inputs for family farmers all while decreasing the revenue a family farmer receives.  The Order directs the USDA to consider issuing new rules: (1) making it easier for farmers to bring and win lawsuits under the Packers and Stockyards Act; (2) prohibiting chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers; (3) adopting anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about a company’s bad practices; and (4) defining when meat producers can promote and label their products as a “Product of the USA.”  The Order also requires the USDA to develop a plan to increase opportunities for small farmers to access markets and receive a fair return and encourages the Federal Trade Commission to limit when equipment companies can restrict farmers from repairing their own farm machinery.  Follow this link to learn more about President Biden’s recent Executive Order.