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McCarthy: USDA should lead on climate change, but food movement can help

NEW YORK -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said she had not made much progress in improving EPA's relationship with farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should take the lead in encouraging farmers to address...

NEW YORK - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said she had not made much progress in improving EPA's relationship with farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should take the lead in encouraging farmers to address climate change.

McCarthy visited New York to address the James Beard Foundation's Food Conference, titled "Now Trending: the Making of a Food Movement."

The attendees were trying to figure out how to come up with a food movement strategy, and McCarthy's assignment seemed to be informing the attendees of lessons from the environmental movement. But many of the questions from the audience were about agriculture and farming.

Asked about the relationship between EPA and agriculture, McCarthy said, "I am trying to figure out how to characterize our relationship. I would love to say it is getting better, but I am not seeing it."

In a reference to the many speeches McCarthy has made around the country trying to explain the Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the U.S. rule, which farmers have criticized, she said, "I am trying, but not succeeding."

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McCarthy said one of the best things that happened to her as EPA administrator is that President Barack Obama defined climate change as "more than an environmental problem," which means that other agencies - including USDA - can get involved.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, which provides grants and technical assistance for conservation on farms and ranches, "is a great ally for us," McCarthy said, but she also warned that the government will not have the money to clean up every environmental problem related to agriculture.

"If every farm requires resources, we don't have that," McCarthy said.

She said 40 to 50 percent of rivers and streams in the country "do not have healthy and functioning ecosystems." She described the problem as a combination of agricultural runoff and stormwater.

"There is no bad guy - just a lot of little things happening," McCarthy said. "We are working with ag on voluntary measures, but they are not at a pace that will work."

The algae blooms that affected the Toledo water system showed "there has to be a wake-up call," McCarthy said. "USDA and farmers need to hold each other to a higher standard."

"I am not suggesting they [farmers and ranchers] are not helpful, not wanting to do things," McCarthy said. "Farming is not an easy kind of work."

But McCarthy said the problem of clean drinking water is so serious "right now, I worry more about drinking water than climate change. Drinking water is being threatened by the runoff. We have to find a way to get solutions out."

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"There are some large industrial facilities that are hardly family farms" and must be regulated as large facilities, McCarthy said.

"Obama brought USDA into the climate world, and they are stepping up big time," working to minimize pesticide use and deal with soil runoff, McCarthy said.

One of the biggest problems now is in the intensity of storms, which is doing tremendous damage to the soil, and drought, she said.

One of the problems is that farmers are dispersed over a large territory, which makes it difficult to reach them, she said.

Finding ways to work with farmers is EPA's job, McCarthy said, but USDA has the advantage of having offices in every county in the country.

Speaking of NRCS and other USDA agencies, McCarthy said, "I need them to be advocates to make farmers realize they can be part of the solution. I much prefer that USDA be the solid ground to be an advocate. We are just too suspect."

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
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