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Op-ed: Giving Texas Agriculture a Voice on Capitol Hill (1/12/2016)

2015 has been a great year for Texas agriculture. Our state was blessed with beneficial rainfall. Farmers have experienced bountiful harvests, and we’re seeing our ranchers start to rebuild their herds after the devastating drought our state experienced. Any farmer or rancher will tell you to count your blessings but keep your eye on the future. When people ask what I see as the greatest threat to the future of the agriculture industry, my answer is simple ― it is a heavy-handed federal government that severely hinders the growth of our agriculture industry and our entire economy.

The men and women who work the land to provide us with food and fiber deserve a seat at the table in Washington, D.C. That’s why I recently visited our nation’s capital ― to provide a voice and advocate for hardworking agricultural producers against overreaching, bureaucratic policies.

Over the course of the three-day trip, I talked with our partners at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I was pleased to sit down with USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden to discuss economic development and emerging international markets. There are so many diverse markets for Texas products across the globe, and by tapping into them, we can open the doors to grow our economy, and especially, our agriculture industry. That’s a win in my book.

I also met with Sen. John Cornyn, Chairman Kevin Brady, Chairman Lamar Smith, Chairman Mike Conaway and Congressman Randy Weber to talk about federal agriculture policy and the steps Congress can take to strengthen the industry. As elected representatives for the state of Texas, these members understand the serious impact the federal government’s actions can have on our agriculture industry. I was grateful for the opportunity to give them a firsthand perspective from back home.

One issue I shared was the struggle many Texas shrimpers are facing with a flood of foreign, farm-raised shrimp entering the U.S. market. Much of this imported shrimp is raised in less-than-ideal circumstances, and the shrimp are pumped full of antibiotics and steroids to help them grow and keep them alive. We’ve also seen recent stories highlighting questionable labor practices associated with some of these shrimp producers in Asia. When this shrimp arrives in the U.S., only two percent are inspected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means the majority makes it into our grocery stores, thereby forcing out higher quality, wild-caught Gulf shrimp.

This issue is not unlike one faced by the U.S. catfish industry recently. A quirk in federal law required USDA to inspect all farm-raised food, while the FDA inspected all seafood regardless of origin. It took eight years for legislation to pass and require USDA to inspect all imported, farm-raised catfish. This was a major step forward. Unfortunately, our Texas shrimpers cannot wait nearly a decade for something to change. These mom-and-pop operations are struggling daily to compete with an inferior, imported product. That is unacceptable.

We can all agree that food safety is a top priority, but to protect the wellbeing of American families and the American economy, we need to be smart about our regulations. I’m hopeful that the recent meetings I had in D.C. will help begin the process of leveling the playing field for local shrimpers ― much like what has been done for the American catfish industry ― so we can all have access to healthy, quality Gulf shrimp and protect this important segment of Texas’ agriculture industry.

Another topic that was fresh on everyone’s minds was the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Clean Water Act rule, also known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. This is an illegal attempt by the federal government to expand its regulation of waters on private lands across the country. WOTUS threatens private property rights, individual freedom and economic growth in Texas. Not only is this an unprecedented federal overreach, but the Government Accountability Office has found that EPA acted illegally in using social media to promote WOTUS, essentially employing propaganda to further its activist agenda. The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) is at the forefront of this fight, and I’m proud to say that we have the support of many of our congressional members. Our lawsuit has resulted in a stay of the rule, and I’m confident the courts will rule that WOTUS cannot stand.

Unfortunately, WOTUS is not the only attack by the federal government on private property rights. Farmers and ranchers along the Red River know this all too well, as they continue to fight against the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) attempt to seize their land without survey. Much of this land has remained in families for generations, but antiquated laws and policies have opened the door for bureaucrats at the BLM to attempt a land-grab. Like many of the landowners in this area, I am not buying what BLM is selling. This land is private property, period. Owning land is one of our most cherished and valued rights as Americans, and is critical to growing the food and fiber that sustains our nation and the world. I’m proud that a bill has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives, which will require a survey of the land before any action is taken by the BLM, despite President Obama’s threat of a veto.  

Agriculture is essential to our national security and our prosperity. While the federal government can lose sight of its impact on the daily lives of Texas agricultural producers, I’m proud to say that the work we do at TDA helps sustain our farmers and ranchers.

Whether I’m in D.C. or here at home in Texas, I’m always fighting for Texas agriculture, working to protect our farmers and ranchers, and spreading the word that Texas agriculture matters. Much promise lies ahead in 2016. It’s a new year with new opportunities, and I look forward to another great year for Texas agriculture ― one that involves far less overreaching federal policy.

Sid Miller is Texas Agriculture Commissioner, and a lifelong farmer, rancher and small business owner.

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