CropLife America President and CEO Chris Novak says the nation's crop protection sector is battered, but not broken after enduring a growing season that took place in the midst of a pandemic that stalled many other facets of the economy. 

Novak, who took the helm of the crop protection trade association nearly two years ago, said CropLife has adjusted well to doing business virtually, but is still working to bring things back to normal.

“The thing that I think none of us can quite determine is, what does normal look like?” he said. “After we have a vaccine and we get back to doing some of what we used to do, I suspect that it's going to be very different from where we were six or 12 months ago.”

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s been the biggest impact from COVID on your members?

Fortunately for us, we’re an essential industry, and also an industry on the manufacturing side with a strong workforce but a lot of automation as well, giving them the opportunity to have employees socially distance. In talking with a few of my members late this spring, early summer, there were very few cases of COVID within their manufacturing plants. They have an ability to isolate those employees and continue business without interruption. The only other aspect of this that we're continuing to monitor is, we bring in a lot of ingredients from overseas, and just ensuring that supplies continue uninterrupted from those sources. There was some concern on that in March and April, but most of those issues seem to have quieted, if not been fully resolved.

In terms of court cases, has that made you shift your resources at all?

In most of the recent cases, I would say we have been an amicus party. The court cases have certainly intensified our work. We were looking at all of that litigation (the Bayer Roundup tort cases and litigation over chlorpyrifos) to say, we have to find a different way to talk to consumers and policymakers with respect to pesticides. In terms of a new approach, it was simply taking the time and the money last year to invest in doing consumer focus groups to gain an understanding of what did they know about pesticides, what was important to them in the conversation around pesticides, and to identify ways that that we could talk to consumers about what we do in a way that didn't have our industry jargon. We got some great learnings from that and (CLA Vice President for Communications and Marketing Genevieve O’Sullivan) did the research and is now in the process of rolling out those messages to our companies as well as to the farm organizations that we work with.

Among consumers there is a strong desire for innovation. They were surprised at how little money farmers made and could understand that farmers needed tools to be able to protect their crops. So, there's some things that we're hoping to continue reinforcing.

We have litigation, we'll be involved in the cases, but beyond the litigation, how do we begin to get to the larger question about the role of pesticides in society?

Do you see your role at CLA as defending your members’ products in the public arena?

Yes, we spend a lot of time in in defense of the products that are manufactured by our members.

I continue to believe as a farm kid who grew up on a small farm in eastern Iowa, we have such a dynamic story to tell about the role that pesticides have played in improving environmental quality, enhancing sustainability, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I truly want us to be able to move from being in a defensive posture to far more aggressively telling that story — that cover crops, which reduce erosion and sequester carbon, reduce runoff of nutrients and pesticides, are best managed with pesticides, where the farmer then will burn down those cover crops before they plant their primary crop in the spring. Conservation tillage and minimum till, no-till, are made possible because of pesticides and in part in combination between pesticides and biotechnology.

We're not ready to let go of some of our older chemistries; those are still important to farmers who are looking at an integrated approach and may need some of those older chemistries to mix up their rotation and ensure that we don't have resistance developing on the farm. But we certainly know that the new innovations that are coming will allow us to better manage the impacts of pesticide use.

What's the biggest issue that keeps you up at night?

I will say right now from a focus standpoint, it is this question of the global regulatory policy.

And we've spent a great deal of time this spring as the Mexican government has more or less adopted a European regulatory philosophy. That's new and certainly challenging, but really in terms of what does keep me up at night, the Bayer settlement on glyphosate was a necessity. When you had over 100,000 individual cases, there would not have been any way to have litigated all of those cases, and certainly as you take these types of issues to a jury, there isn't a strong understanding of science within most jury panels, and so truly laying out how and why these products have been reviewed, how the products are used to minimize risk to consumers, you couldn't have fought that in 100,000 courtrooms across the United States.

We can continue to represent our industry well within Congress and within state legislatures to explain the story that I just shared, but when we get to the courts, there is very little that can be done, as we saw with dicamba where the court said, 'we’re going to vacate EPA’s registration decision and we know that that will impact farmers, but that's not our concern.' I'm paraphrasing the court’s language, but that was the effect and the thrust of their decision, and that creates chaos for farmers who have planted crops, who have bought chemicals, who were ready to go to the field when that decision was issued.

During the CropLife meeting last fall, we heard some folks talking about the need for consolidating advocacy groups in the industry, because there's been a lot of consolidation in the industry itself. Are there any discussions happening right now between CropLife and any other groups about getting together?

Certainly, we’re aware of those conversations and even as I was interviewing in the spring of 2018, those issues and questions were certainly out there. I am excited about the organizational changes and improvements that we've implemented over the last 18 to 24 months. We began with a strategic planning process in late 2018, early 2019 to look at, what is the focus that we want to create for the organization, where should we be investing dollars and staff time to create the greatest return for our membership?

But also in October of 2018, I sat down with my colleagues at The Fertilizer Institute, the Ag Retailers Association, as well as the American Seed Trade Association, to look at moving into a shared office space, not proposing any change in the nature or structure of our organizations, but the realization that we need to work closely together and that there would be ways if we moved in with one another, that we could share services, share costs, and better coordinate, as we're serving some common members.

That has now come to fruition in that we will move in December into a shared office with TFI and ARA.

Moving into EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, obviously, you guys have a lot of dealings with them. Do you think they have enough resources and personnel to do what they need to do right now, especially pesticide registration review?

No. And in visiting with (former OPP Director) Rick Keigwin, who just had moved (in June) from OPP into (EPA Assistant Administrator of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention) Alex Dunn's shop, Rick noted that at one point in time, he was authorized to have up to 900 employees, and they were down to 600.

We met with the assistant EPA Administrator a year ago, Rick Darwin, who noted at the time that EPA was about 300 days behind its PRIA deadline. So for an individual product, if the PRIA target is two years, I mean EPA was running at almost three years to get that product through the process.

Is there anything you're pushing for in terms of regulations right now at EPA?   

No. The one outstanding question is always going to be the Endangered Species Act. There, we're going to continue to push (EPA) to utilize better data. They recently have issued some biological evaluations (on the effects of pesticides on endangered species) that did incorporate better mapping of species as well as mapping of pesticide use, and yet, my members have indicated that EPA was still using more or less state-level data. We know as we look at any given state, there are areas where there is very little or no agricultural production, and those may be home to some of the threatened and endangered species. And yet your agricultural producing counties may be 100 miles away, and so if you're looking at an endangered species issue at a state level, then you might sit there and say we're not going to allow the use of individual products within this state. And that's an area again of technical adaptation improvement that we will continue to push the agency on.

Courts are directing EPA to finish this consultation process, and yet we've seen three compounds move through in the last year, and then there's a list of 700 compounds waiting to be reviewed. So that's going to continue to be a major focus of our regulatory work.

Your strategic plan says by next year, you're supposed to launch this coordinated, harmonized effort to communicate a new narrative. Who are the influencers you’re trying to get this out to? And can you talk a little bit about what that narrative is going to look like?

That message testing and development work that we did last year, even as we were finalizing the strategic plan is still the base of that effort, that goal within the strategic plan. We are rolling those messages out now and share that messaging with all members and organizations. How we incorporate this into the communication that we have with state legislators and federal lawmakers is one of those pieces that we're continuing to work on — how we deliver those messages and who helps us with that. I think the other elements that will be a part of that goal, I also have touched on and that is what is the message, the story that the pesticide industry can tell on greenhouse gas emissions?

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Within a new Congress, if there's a Democratic majority, if there is a new administration, then we know that climate will certainly be toward the top of the list in terms of their environmental agenda. And we know that there's lots of questions and concerns around pesticides that we'll also have to address in a new administration and with new members of Congress. At the same time, we do want to ensure that we're framing the messages around the benefits that we do provide, and how pesticides are an important part of a sustainable agricultural system and can help us continue to improve productivity, food quality and safety, as well as environmental quality.

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