One year into the job, Chris Novak is already battle-tested.
“I certainly have announced in some of my speeches that my motto through my first year at CropLife America is, ‘May you live in interesting times,’” says Novak, who took over as the association’s CEO in August 2018.
Along with the expected twists, turns, and learning curves inherent in the first year of a complex assignment, including the continuation of efforts handed off to him from his predecessor, Jay Vroom, additional challenges were right around the corner. Assaults on glyphosate and chlorpyrifos, a government shutdown, and working to keep the EPA fully staffed to ensure crop protection product assessments move smoothly through the process were at the forefront of a difficult year on the Hill.
It has also been one of Novak’s priorities to lead construction of the organization’s five-year strategic plan, with months of research and hard work invested. The plan will go before the CropLife America board at the annual conference this month and be shared publicly once approved.
CropLife® magazine got the chance to catch up with Novak last month to discuss more about the first year and a look ahead to 2020.
CropLife: When you started in August of 2018, a host of issues was already lining up for attention.
Chris Novak: Well, to the extent that we got legal decisions just before I started certainly shifted the landscape for the crop protection industry. That included the first glyphosate decision, as well as the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court on chlorpyrifos. Certainly, in terms of national attention from media paid to pesticides, it is significantly higher than it was before. And on the regulatory side, we have seen an increase of 68% in state legislative bills addressing pesticides this past year.
From the legal, legislative, media, and policy standpoints, the industry has faced numerous challenges — those who have been around the industry for a long time are saying it’s the most difficult in recent memory.
CL: Despite the challenges, the organization has made progress on long-standing policy challenges in 2019.
Novak: We’ve certainly had some significant opportunities. Work was started before I walked in the door on reforms and improvements to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) process as it relates to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Oversight and legislation included in the Farm Bill helped codify improvement within the interagency process related to ESA, enabling stakeholders from both industry and conservation organizations to work with government to find solutions that will benefit endangered species and their habitats while providing for a science-based regulatory process.
Another project that had a significant foundation laid last year, and which wrapped up this past March, was the reauthorization of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act (PRIA). This bill ensures the funding of EPA staff who are vital to the pesticide registration and regulatory process. This is not just for new products but also label changes and other required regulatory actions within EPA. Its passage was absolutely critical to ensuring that the dollars were available to keep the staff in place and ensure EPA is able to review and re-review new and existing products.
Something perhaps not widely understood was that we truly worked across the aisle on some of these initiatives. For example, despite our differences with groups commonly seen as our opposition, we know that there is support on both sides for a strong EPA and a desire to support the agency and the resources it needs to meet its obligations. With respect to PRIA, we worked closely with the Natural Resources Defense Council — not an organization that would be a traditional ally, but at the same time they recognize that having a sound and effective science-based registration process is important from both an environment and a business perspective. We see an opportunity to work on more of these issues from a bipartisan perspective.
CL: How did the government shutdown impact the association?
Novak: It served to slow down the registration process. And it had some implications for new products coming to market and the opportunity for farmers to access those products during this crop season. But we found that EPA was willing to work with us to help address the backlog and move things forward in spite of the shutdown.
CL: Talk about the impact of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos legal action on association work.
Novak: Of course, with glyphosate there is a legal element in the courts, and that is going to be fought by the individual member companies. But there’s also a battle in the court of public opinion. These judicial decisions have certainly created a much higher profile of pesticide issues in the national media — the New York Times has covered the chlorpyrifos issue extensively.
The opportunity for us is to identify some different ways we can engage in this conversation and help people to understand the important role that pesticides play. Most of the media stories around the court cases have focused on the perceived risk without looking at the benefit side.
The recent emergence of eastern equine encephalitis as a deadly mosquito-borne disease highlights the importance of mosquito control and provides us an opportunity to talk to the public about the benefits our products deliver. We know that we are positively impacting and influencing the life, health, and safety of consumers. The question we are working on is how do we begin to talk about compounds like chlorpyrifos with media, regulators, and consumers so they understand there is another side to the story. Our board has approved some new work to examine how we can talk to consumers differently about the value and benefit pesticides have in daily life.
CL: I know the strategic plan for 2020 is still in development, but what major areas of focus did your research uncover?
Novak: The research we did pointed first to addressing how the industry is perceived by the public and decision makers both on the Hill and at the state level, in addition to others who have interaction with pesticides, such as food companies.
There’s also interest from members to talk more about what the industry is already doing to help agriculture be more sustainable — for example, the role of pesticides in cover crops and soil fertility.
There’s also support for work that helps ensure we have a strong, functioning regulatory system that has credibility with the public and others. Those three focus areas will be key for the association next year.
CL: What other issues are on the table?
Novak: On trade issues, first and foremost we are working with our farm and association partners that include collaborative efforts around the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But we are also working with commodity group partners on addressing the European Union’s new proposed system for changing pesticide access for European farmers. And what are the implications for commodities produced here in U.S. and around the world that utilize pesticides that are no longer available to European farmers?
We also continue work with ag company leadership through the 20-member Ag CEO Council to look at how we can reach out to and engage presidential candidates to help them have a better understanding of key issues, from trade to the environment to sustainability. We’re also reinforcing the importance of jobs and economic growth in ag.