King Amendment to Farm Bill Threatens California Ag

Fall 2012

California Farmer

California agriculture stands threatened by a midnight amendment to the Farm Bill by Iowa representative Steve King.  The King Amendment, slipped in on July 11 at the end of a 13-hour markup session by the House Agriculture Committee, would decimate numerous California programs that ensure that only safe and healthy food is sold into the state.

The King Amendment is vague and its precise meaning is difficult to pin down.  In plain terms, it appears to mean that states cannot prohibit or regulate the sale of agricultural products based on their method of production, so long as the method of production was legal in the state in which the products were produced, and complies with any applicable federal standards.

At first blush, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea.  But it has the potential to wipe out delicately balanced and long-standing state agriculture programs, leaving California producers at a serious disadvantage.  Although the language is unclear, the King Amendment does not appear to stop California from regulating in-state production.  This means that California producers may be subject to one set of requirements, while out-of-state producers will be subject to another.  This leaves out-of-state and possibly foreign producers free to undercut California farmers with cheap, sub-standard products.  The inevitable flood of cheaper, lower quality products would certainly drive many California producers out of business, further crippling California’s economy and its agricultural communities.

No sector of agriculture—from eggs to milk to vegetable crops—is safe from the King Amendment.  The Amendment exempts from California standards all out-of-state “agricultural products,” which is defined broadly.  The term includes “all products raised or produced on farms and any processed or manufactured product thereof,” as well as a range of horticultural, viticultural, dairy, livestock, forest, and fish or shellfish products.  Even bees are included.

If the Farm Bill passes in its current form, it will mean devastation for California farmers and the state’s annual $37.5 billion in farm receipts.  Take eggs, for example.  In 2010, the legislature passed AB 1437, which provides that all eggs sold in California must be produced from hens housed in compliance with Proposition 2.  Even though AB 1437 is explicitly based on food safety and egg quality, the King Amendment would void its application to out-of-state eggs.  That would leave California egg farmers at a massive competitive disadvantage, and the market would be flooded with cheap, battery-cage eggs.  There can be little doubt that Mr. King—from the large egg-producing state of Iowa—is hoping for just that.

The same could be true for California milk, which has stricter standards than the USDA for fats, bacteria, and other items.  California has been the leading milk producing state since 1993, but its dairies—already under siege by high feed costs and strict price controls—may soon be undercut by a flood of cheap, lower-quality milk from out-of-state.  The same may be true of pest inspection and exclusion laws for fruits and vegetables, and many other food safety and quality regulations that help ensure that California farmers who produce fresh safe, and healthy food are not driven out of business by a glut of lower quality products from out-of-state.

Opinions differ on whether the Farm Bill will move forward this year, and whether the King Amendment will survive in its current form.  There is complete agreement, however, on the need to closely watch this important and potentially devastating proposal.

Pending Publication in California Farmer. Republished with permission.