Thursday, June 04, 2020

National Family Farm Coalition v. US EPA (9th Cir. - June 3, 2020)

This 55-page opinion from the Ninth Circuit tells you probably more than you would ever want to know about soybean farming (and cotton farming) in the United States -- and, in particular, (1) how we get rid of weeds in modern farming, and (2) just how dependent we are on both (a) Round-Up and its follow-on chemicals (here, dicamba) and (b) genetically modified seeds that protect crops against such chemicals.  It's an amazing description of an industry that you usually don't see discussed much in the Ninth Circuit (as opposed to, say, Iowa).  Suffice it to say:  Farming is tough.  Very tough.

The most amazing thing to me about the opinion was the mutually-reinforcing nature of the chemicals and their (related) genetically modified seeds.  Super-brief summary:  Farmers need to get rid of weeds, picking them by hand is a hassle, everyone starts using Monsanto's Round-Up as well as genetically modified seeds that make the crops resistant to Round-Up, weeds start becoming resistant to Round-Up since it's used so pervasively, farmers start using stronger dicamba-based herbicides to which there's no resistance as well as genetically modified seeds making crops resistant to Round-Up, dicamba works well but also drifts and spreads easily to other crop- and non-crop plants (killing them in a specific way) in other fields, and then farmers with "regular" soybeans then face pressure to buy the genetically modified soybeans because if they don't the drift of the herbicide from their neighbor's field kills their own soybean (or cotton) crop and, voila, everyone's using the herbicide alongside the genetically modified seeds.

Pretty good marketing strategy for a product.

It's also interesting to see how the EPA and manufacturers try to "regulate" the problem.  There's a clear problem with "drift" so the policies about how and when farmers can apply dicamba become more and more strict over time, and those policies generally "work" when followed, but to follow 'em basically becomes impossible over time:  e.g., wind has to exist (over 3 m.p.h.) but not be too strong (over 10 m.p.h.), no spraying before one hour after sunrise or after two hours before sunset, only two applications per crop, no spraying during temperature inversions, no spraying if nontrivial rain is expected within 24 hours, etc.  In practice, that essentially means that you can basically never spray the stuff, so many farmers spray it illegally and pay the resulting fines as the cost of doing business.  Though recall that the illegal spraying doesn't harm them (except for the fines) -- it instead harms their neighbors.  The classic collective action problem, combined with a regulatory regime that is theoretically effective but practically marginal.

So if you want to learn a lot about modern farming, this opinion is definitely for you.  I promise you'll learn a lot.  As I undeniably did.

It's almost certainly not as bad as learning in detail how sausage is made.  But it's pretty bad regardless.