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In a normal year we would be debating several worthy agricultural stories as the most important. We certainly would be taking a hard look at the continuing dicamba herbicide saga. 2020 saw the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit de-register dicamba formulations in the middle of the growing season from Bayer AG, Corteva, and BASF because of shoddy regulatory control at the Environmental Protection Agency:

“The EPA made multiple errors in granting the conditional registrations…the EPA substantially understated the risks it acknowledged, and it entirely failed to acknowledge other risks. We conclude that the “fundamental flaws” in the EPA’s analysis are so substantial that it is exceedingly “unlikely that the same rule would be adopted on remand.”

Since that April ruling, we learned how Monsanto, which was purchased by Bayer in 2018, ruthlessly dumped dicamba on farmers. As it turns out Monsanto knew dicamba was seriously flawed but put it on the market anyway figuring farmers would have no choice but to buy dicamba resistant cotton and soybean seeds to prevent dicamba drift from neighboring farms destroying their crops.

But instead of sending Big Ag back to the herbicide drawing board, EPA re-registered dicamba with yet another confusing and impossible to follow spraying label, along with increased buffer zones, a requirement requiring mixing dicamba with a volatility-reducing chemical and a June 30th cutoff date. Farmers immediately saw this as a stinking pile of horse manure and filed a lawsuit that's pending.

OK...dicamba was a big deal. But not as big as the ongoing federal mismanagement of climate change which is threatening to reshape our world forever. The EPA spent much of 2020 unraveling any regulation that might lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions capping four years of White House denial that climate change is real. 

While a few republican Representatives and Senators have begun warming to the realization that unabated climate change will permanently rearrange global political and economic realities the GOP at large continued to push alternative reality that climate change isn't worth the trouble of legislative relief. With the election of a new president expect some movement on climate change in 2021 but realize permanent changes will require Congressional lawmaking.

Other contenders for top story of 2020 include January's ill-fated trade deal with China, and increased suicide among farmers.

But all this pales in comparison to 2020s top agricultural issue – the novel coronavirus. Our full 2020 coverage is here but there are a couple of topics which need new federal oversight as soon as possible:

Deaths of agricultural workers and their families exposed while on the job to coronavirus. Reporting showed Big Ag, the White House and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in cahoots to keep meat processing lines rolling no matter the cost in human life. Some of the biggest meat packers in agriculture – Smithfield Foods, Tyson, and JBS to name a few – were not up to the challenge of dealing with coronavirus. Smaller processing companies were also guilty. When the virus is finally under control – perhaps in the summer or fall of 2021 – Congress needs full scale investigations to understand what happened. 

Government's inability to quickly redirect food from wholesale to retail. The federal government spent months early on stumbling all over itself in redirecting food production from restaurants closed down to stem the spread of the virus to retail for public purchase. There was plenty of blame to go around – to processors, food servers, retail, and household.

Nothing disrupted agriculture in 2020 as much as SARS-CoV-2. In addition to death, market disruptions and waste, the coronavirus put huge stress on food banks, reduced school feeding programs, and restricted access to food with stay at home orders. Covid has left our nation with a boatload of unresolved questions and issues.

American agriculture was unprepared for the coronavirus, and often unresponsive as the pandemic grew.  It will take a bi-partisan reckoning by both state and federal government to avoid a repeat when the next pandemic rears its ugly head. 

About Dave Dickey

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 the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.