California’s ongoing state government fiscal crisis is impacting everyone in the state, including agriculturists.

However, that’s both good news and bad news.

Renee Pinel, president of Western Plant Health Association, said the state’s $25 billion income shortfall is generating a promised “less hostile” regulatory environment in Sacramento, Calif., to cut the costs of the state bureaucracy.

That is the good news. The bad news is that cuts in funding mean fewer people to enforce existing laws.

Recently, the newly elected governor, Jerry Brown, ordered a hiring freeze to go along with other cost-cutting measures he has instituted since January to trim the budget.

“There is a lot of talk lately about streamlining regulation” by cutting down the number of agencies regulating the same issue, Pinel noted.

For example, Pinel said the Department of Pesticide Regulation should be the only agency dealing with pesticides as they relate to air and water quality. Instead, there are several different agencies involved here, and they all use different methodologies to evaluate the impacts of pesticides on the environment. This may change.

While Pinel would welcome a friendly atmosphere in state government, however, she added, “How far it goes is yet to be seen.”

The other side of the fiscal crisis issue is that with fewer people, many regulations on the books are not being enforced. This could result in a backlash on the industry — if they continued to be ignored.

Pinel, who has been with WPHA for 18 years, first as director of regulatory affairs and for the past five years, CEO, said despite a promised less hostile atmosphere in Sacramento, the challenges facing California agriculture continue to far outweigh the opportunities.

The cost of developing new products for use in California agriculture continues to be higher than other states or even the federal level because of California’s more stringent pesticide laws.

Fortunately, those challenges have not stopped major manufacturers from developing products for high value crops in the state, said Pinel.

However, it continues to be an often onerous process with pressure on DPR from activist political groups challenging DPR’s assessment of pesticides as in the recent registration of the fumigant Midas.

Nevertheless, Pinel said DPR has proven to be helpful and considerate of agriculture in these battles when the industry produces thoughtful facts and arguments in stating its position on product registrations or changes in regulations.

Often, DPR is bombarded with avalanches of computer-generated comments by people “who have no idea what they are commenting on. You can hit a button and generate thousands of comment postcards.”

Asked if agriculture can do the same, Pinel said it is far more helpful if supporters communicate with DPR through personal, fact-based comments. “A lot of things like buffer zones sound like a nice idea, but if farmers and PCAs respond that they are impractical or will not work in the real world, it carries a lot of weight.

A hundred letters from stakeholders carry far more weight than thousands of same-song postcards, she said.

Biotechnology and sustainable agriculture

Biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are two additional issues that generate considerable political and regulatory interest.

Japan is a critical market for California agricultural products and, so far, the Japanese have not embraced biotechnology. This has hampered the development of biotech rice for California rice growers.

Japan is “slowly coming around” she said on biotech rice as the other major rice-producing countries like China and India “wholeheartedly” endorse the development of biotech rice.

Pinel said market acceptance will be the key to future development of biotech crops in California.

The bureaucracy and the legislature continue to promote sustainability in agriculture and push agriculture more toward organic systems.

This, she said, often comes without a “practical understanding” of agriculture and what the end results and cost of this push might be.

“A lot of these systems have not been researched on a practical scale” for commercial agriculture “to see if they are economically feasible,” she added.

hcline@farmpress.com