Breaking out major prognostic tools (including an 8-ball, Ouija board, paper fortune teller and dart board...yeah we're high tech around here) here are some of the big agricultural issues on the horizon for 2019.
A long and winding 2018 debate between trade negotiators in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. has produced the offshoot of the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Donald Trump, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sign the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina last November.
The new USMCA shares much with its predecessor. But under the radar there is a new chapter on bio-technology. Back when NAFTA was ratified in 1994 agricultural biotechnology wasn't a thing. But ut in the years since biotech research, development, and implementation has accelerated exploded helping farmers produce more food and lower production costs.
U.S. seed companies by and large hated Canadian and Mexico attitudes opposing genetically modified crops.
But that could very well change if USMCA is ratified because it may prevent trade barriers to GMO and even newer cutting edge gene editing technologies like CRISPR.
But with a new sheriff in town in the U.S House of Representatives it's a coin flip if democrats ratify USMCA. Democrats are likely to demand stronger, more enforceable labor standards which don't appear in the the new deal, but rather in a side agreement.
Still there is a chance House dems could go thumbs up (although I'm not personally suggesting you run to Vegas and place a bet on the likelihood). The calculus goes like this: the GOP votes in block in favor of the deal meaning a relatively small number of democrats, probably from coastal districts and those in deep red districts are most vulnerable for a “no” vote.
U.S.-China Trade War
I spent plenty of time writing about the U.S.-China trade war over steel, aluminum, and intellectual property rights and how domestic farmers have been an unwitting pawn in the fight.
Of late there has been a cooling of the back and forth hostilities that has resulted in escalating U.S. and China tariffs that have been a sucker punch in particular to U.S. pork and soybean producers.
As I am writing this blog, China is speaking to U.S. trade delegates in Beijing.
Those talks could provide signals of whether China is prepared raise a white flag. Intellectual property rights will be a key to any deal.
Certainly U.S. producers would like to see resolution before the start of the 2019 growing season, especially given drought conditions in Brazil have already shaved some 4 million metric tons off production estimates.
When I last blogged about alt meat back last August, USDA and the FDA were locked in an arm wrestling contest to determine who the heck would regulating the budding alt-meat industry.
After much back and forth, the USDA and FDA in November announced they would share joint regulatory oversight of cell cultured proteins.
Under the agreement, FDA will have oversight of cell-collection, cell-banks, cell growth and differentiation. Once cultured protein cells are harvested FDA hand off regulation to USDA which will have oversight of product production including labeling of alt-meat products.
All this tees up 2019 as the year when alt-meats could hit local grocery stores in a big way...if federal regulators can get deep in the weeds to define just what the heck cell based meats are. Until now it has been general uncertainty among alt-meat producers that have pulled the reins on the industry.
Questions...questions...questions. A few biggies: Is it meat, when does muscle tissue and cells become meat (if it is meat), how should alt-meats be labeled, how do we know this stuff is safe?
Well you get the idea.
If all this is ironed out look for alt-chicken nuggets to hit grocers later this year.
Yeah I know. Dicamba continues to be controversial. I was quite a bit ahead of the curve when in August of 2016 I accurately predicted the total disaster dicamba, Bayer-Monsanto's newest weed killing formula, has become.
Let's be frank.
In 2016 Monsanto pushed dicamba resistant soybean seeds on ag producers without due diligence and transparent testing for unintended consequences. Monsanto sold farmers dicamba resistant soybeans while warning them the company did not have the complementary dicamba weed killer to make the system work.
Farmers largely ignored Monsanto's warning and applied whatever dicamba weed killer they could get their hands on with predictable consequences
But that was nothing compared to 2017.
Monsanto introduced its Environmental Protection Agency approved dicamba-based XtendMax weed killer and by the end of the growing season drifting herbicide damaged close to 4 million acres.
Since then Monsanto, and now Bayer which has bought out the Saint Louis ag-mega firm, have tried to put the genie back in the bottle, primarily with updated Environmental Protection Agency product labels on how to apply the weed killer on crops.
But that hasn't solved the issue. In 2018, more than a million acres of crops were damaged from XtendMax.
Compounding the issue in 2018 was an increase in specialty crops damaged.
So what does EPA do to fix the dicamba crisis for 2019? Nothing new. Last October, EPA decided to renew the label for use of dicamba for two more years.
So expect the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons to look a lot like 2018. But there is a day of reckoning coming for Bayer, perhaps later this year.
Billions of dollars in damages and penalties are on the table. Given how the courts have looked on this kind of foolishness in the past (Google MIR 163 corn court case for example) Bayer realistically could lose in the courts. Stay tuned.
I don't expect anything of consequence out of the White House in 2019 to address what is obvious to the rest of the world (with the exception of a few OPEC nations) – that the earth is becoming warmer due to human interaction through the release of green house gasses into the atmosphere.
Last November, we got some rather chilling news from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is warning the world is on the brink of failure in holding global warming to moderate levels and it has a decade give or take to take drastic unprecedented actions to cut carbon emissions.
So if nothing is likely to happen in 2019 why have I put the issue into my blazing five?
Because I expect it to become politically charged this year. The UNIP says something needs to be done on a grand scale about climate change or suffer irreversible consequences. That makes it a math problem If President Donald Trump is reelected another six years will go by without U. S. international involvement. That leaves just three precious years (and more likely two if you consider the time it takes for a new administration to fully take the reigns of the White House).
Add to that the 2020 presidential campaign is already underway with Senator Elizabeth Warren's announcement of forming an exploratory committee to run for POTUS. The Massachusetts Democrat, if recent trips to Iowa are any indication, is running on populist themes – the federal government needs to be more transparent and there needs to be new laws to protect employees and consumers.
So far not a word about climate change. But most analysts expect there will be double digit democrat candidates for POTUS. And I got to believe that some may find ways to put a spotlight back on climate change this year.
So there you have it. Five huge issues for 2019. That's not to say other issues could hit radar screens. Expect release of the new Census of Agriculture report later this year. It likely will show reductions in the number of commercial farmers, and rapid consolidation of farm size growth compared with the previous census.
Head winds ahead.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.