Senate ag subcommittee holds hearing on horticulture

The Senate Agriculture Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics and Research Subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on specialty crops in the horticulture title of the farm bill.

In opening remarks, Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., the subcommittee chairman, and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., the ranking member, talked about the importance of specialty crops to small farms and several bills that each is introducing.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, highlighted testimony from Margaret Leigh Worthington, who testified on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association that a recently finalized Environmental Protection Agency rule on plant-incorporated protectants (PIPs) “is causing a great deal of concern in the plant breeding community.”

In her prepared remarks, Worthington said, “This is in large part due to EPA’s focus on the process used to create the product, rather than the product itself. EPA’s updated policy is intended to address new and evolving breeding methods like gene editing. The goal is to establish new ‘derived from sexually compatible plant’-based exemptions for certain PIPs that were introduced using the tools such as gene editing that result in plant characteristic(s) that could have been created using conventional breeding. However, contrary to EPA’s approach to similar products created using conventional breeding, the rule adds bureaucratic layers of red tape for products developed using gene editing — even though the agency views those products as posing no greater risk than those produced through conventional breeding; keep in mind that conventional breeding also includes plants created by making mutations much more imprecisely, including using radiation and chemical-induced mutagenesis.

“I want to highlight that the new EPA rule is a setback for interagency alignment, it is in direct conflict with USDA’s recent revisions to its regulations and it is also out of step with a lot of other countries — including our No. 1 seed trading partner, Canada, which has a very progressive science-based policy on regulation of these plant-incorporated protectants,” Worthington said during her testimony.

“This rule will frustrate U.S. innovation, drive companies to export their staff, investments, and technologies to our international competitors, and create market barriers that only the largest multinational corporations can overcome. In short, EPA’s PIP rule puts American farmers and consumers last. More significant, it removes another tool from the toolbox that specialty crop producers — and all producers — so desperately need,” Boozman said.

Charles Wingard, vice president of field operations at Walter P. Rawl and Sons, who represented the International Fresh Produce Association, testified about the farm bill recommendations of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.

Wingard also testified that adjusted gross income (AGI) limitations on eligibility for farm programs “disproportionately prohibits specialty crop producers from participating in certain USDA programs in a meaningful way and potentially inhibits specialty crop producers from participating in disaster programs. USDA programs that require a means test for participation should be based on income derived from farming and be flexible enough to account for the variety of structures, accounting methods and other special considerations for specialty crop producers, not just their AGI.”

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