Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Year in Reverse: A Look Back at 2014

Each year I take a look back at the big legal stories in agriculture. This year, the usual wrangling over environmental and livestock issues took a back seat to drones and “big data.” These precision ag stories were everywhere.  But there was also a big fight over future environmental regulations, and that made my list too.  So here it is, my complete list of the top 5 legal ag issues from 2014.

1. Drones. Whether you call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAVs, or “drones,” these unmanned flying machines were a huge deal this past year. Drone start-ups exploded onto the scene, bringing us incredible images of planting and harvest.   For some beautiful harvest photos, check out Chad Colby’s photos on AgTechTalk. Drones also hold immense promise for agriculture, if the FAA ever authorizes commercial flight in US airspace.  In the meantime, farmers have to follow the FAA’s “hobby” rule.

2. Big Data. Monsanto made news by acquiring Climate Corporation (in late 2013) and launching Field Scripts onto the national scene.  Beck’s Hybrids, an independent family owned seed company, launched FARMserver, demonstrating that not all big data technology will come from large, multinational corporations.  The New York Times profiled Indiana farmer Kip Tom, who spoke about the promise of big data to revolutionize farming. And American Farm Bureau Federation released its document to guide the big data discussion, Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data.

3. GMO Labeling Initiatives. GMO advocates made a hard push for mandatory GMO labeling in Colorado and Oregon, but ultimately failed to convince the masses on ballot initiatives. GMO opponents immediately cried foul, claiming that "big ag" purchased the votes by outspending GMO labeling advocates on advertising. For an independent analysis of the issues surrounding GMO labeling, check out The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s white paper on the issue: The Potential Impacts of Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food.

4. Waters of the United States (WOTUS). The EPA’s proposed rule to clarify the longstanding muddied mess of what constitutes "Waters of the United States" became the poster child for those believing the EPA is overreaching its authority under the Clean Water Act. American Farm Bureau Federation launched a “Ditch the Rule” campaign to stop the proposed WOTUS rules. The EPA responded with its own “Ditch the Myth” counter-campaign. If this isn’t enough Clean Water Act excitement for you, check out the EPA’s attempt (and subsequent abandonment) to regulate airborne poultry litter as a Clean Water Act violation, since everything that flies must eventually land:  Lois and Carol Alt v. EPA.

5. The 2014 Farm Bill. It is easy to forget that 2014 also saw the passage of a new Farm Bill, which is pretty impressive considering how difficult it is for Congress to pass anything these days. The USDA provided a brief synopsis of the Farm Bill, which doesn't explain just how much of the Farm Bill funding is for supplemental nutrition assistance programs.  The Washington Post explains the breakdown.

While not a top 5 issue for most Americans, one of the most viewed posts on in 2014 was my recount of a trip to Liberia, West Africa earlier this year. If you missed it, please read my synopsis of the Challenges Facing Liberian Agriculture (and this was before Ebola).  As you think about the issues facing US agriculture, it's important to keep in mind the different issues facing many other parts of the world.

Thanks for reading. See you in 2015!

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