While agriculture is “clearly on the defensive” with regard to environmental and pesticide issues, an Environmental Protection Agency official says a proactive, collaborative approach can provide “an opportunity to get out front on these issues more than we have in the past.”

Jon Scholl, counselor for agricultural policy to the administrator of the EPA, told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual meeting at Orlando, Fla., that while “I'm aware the EPA and the agchem industry have had a contentious relationship in many ways, the general attitude I see among the administration and the leadership in Washington is very much one that coincides with the themes of the agchem industry.”

Scholl said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson assumed leadership of the agency with the goal of “helping people to find a better way to comply with their environmental obligations.”

Before assuming the administrator's position, Johnson, a 25-year veteran of EPA, held several key posts in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances.

“Steve has stressed that environmental programs need to be based on sound science — something agriculture believes in and feels strongly about,” Scholl said.”

He noted that President Bush, in a 2004 executive order, directed all federal agencies that have any kind of natural resources or environmental components in their mission to use a cooperative, collaborative approach in addressing issues.

That, Scholl said, can offer a “very productive, and certainly much more friendly approach” in dealing with environmental issues in agriculture.

“Agriculture is clearly on the defensive — particularly in the pesticide and livestock sectors. There have been a lot of lawsuits, and it seems we're constantly having to defend many of the things we do as part of farm production practices that have been in place for many years.

“Part of the challenge we face is to try and get into a position where we can focus more on positive, proactive things we can do to protect and enhance the environment, rather than defending ourselves against lawsuits and other challenges.”

An example, Scholl said, involving air quality issues related to animal agriculture, resulted in the agency choosing “not to enforce compliance, as typically may have been done, but rather using a better, collaborative approach, working with the industry, trying together to use research and information to address the issues.”

That's much the challenge in dealing with all kinds of agricultural issues, he said. “How can we move the farthest and fastest, bringing along the most people, to address the issues that challenge our industry?”

There are three key approaches that the EPA will use in dealing with issues, Scholl said:

  • Focusing on cross-media impacts: “We deal with many issues, which often affect one another. We need to do a better job of dealing with these cross-media issues.”

    The “extreme complexity of the issues we deal with” and the myriad of agencies that have become involved in the environmental protection arena often result “in a feeling of being overwhelmed,” Scholl said.

    “One of the major complaints we get is that, on any issue, one day you may be dealing with one agency, tomorrow another. It especially gets to be a problem when you find that your best effort on a particular issue may create or exacerbate another issue.

    “Putting farmers and people running agricultural businesses in the position of having to decide how to deal with these trade-offs isn't fair.”

    He said the EPA is developing a cross-media team to facilitate and bring people together to talk about programs and issues that may be affecting each other, “and deciding how we, as agencies, can get our act together to make sure we have reasonable programs that we're sure will work.”

  • Greater emphasis on market forces: “How can we use market forces for incentivizing the progress and change that may need to take place?”

    In an industry that understands marketing as agriculture does, Scholl said there will be increasing focus on “how we can capture the benefits tied to environmental goals to help move change in a timely fashion, and also maybe affect the bottom line.

    “Traveling around the country, I've seen seen a lot of great examples of how people are using market forces to drive change in very positive ways.”

    A lot of attention in Washington is being focused on how to capture the benefits of marketing to achieve environmental progress, he said

    “In looking to the new farm bill, we have a very active dialogue with the USDA in trying to figure out what kind of policies are needed and what kind of signals we can send that will help drive the creation of markets around these issues — turning what was previously looked at as problems into opportunities, not only to address environmental issues, but hopefully also to bring about some economic benefits.”

  • Using an environmental management systems approach, “providing a one-stop-shopping kind of approach to making things work easier for people who are trying to run businesses and comply with environmental laws.

“Basically, what this represents is a positive way to get out front in the planning process and, hopefully, to get agencies to say, ‘If you've got an Environmental Management System in place, you've taken a big step toward what you need to do to be in compliance with regulations.”

Agricultural businesses, in trying to deal with many agencies and many issues, may encounter “the ultimate culture clash,” Scholl said.

“When they have to deal with agencies, especially the EPA, where there's a lot of very specialized expertise, bringing everyone together sometimes is a real challenge. In many instances, I think it has had the perverse effect of having people so focused and so caught up in complex regulations, that we've lost sight of what our ultimate goal is — protecting the environment that we live and operate in.”

Environmental management systems, he said, could be “a terrific tool to help us concentrate on what we want to be focused on: How do we bring a comprehensive, hopefully somewhat simplified management to our agricultural operations so we can protect the environment and relieve us of some of the regulatory pressures we have to deal with?”

In looking at these opportunities, Scholl said, agriculture often tends to “set standards very high — often exceeding legislative or regulatory standards. You understand your businesses best and know where opportunities are and where you might be vulnerable. You can address these issues in a positive way, rather than the negative way that has too often been the focus of the regulatory system.”

The American Meat Institute, he said, “has done a very good job” of helping meat processors with Environmental Management Systems, which “has helped relieve some of their environmental pressures,” and a number of states have programs “that focus on bringing together producers, businesses, regulators, and environmental groups to develop plans that help them do what they need to do to comply with regulations.”

All these opportunities, Scholl said, “can help us to be proactive, get ahead of issues, and hopefully get ourselves somewhat off the offensive.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com