Nov 19, 2020
By Wendy Brannen and Kayla Hedrick • From Fall 2020 American Soybean magazine
In October 2019, a transformation took place in our nation’s capital: The American Soybean Association (ASA) transitioned from a contract lobby model of D.C. representation dating nearly 30 years to a full-time staff focused solely on ASA priorities.
Since that time, new names and faces have come on board, reflecting a range of personal and professional experiences, diverse political and geographical backgrounds, and networks both on and off the Hill to position soy favorably.
Leading the policy shop is Christy Seyfert, executive director of government affairs. A sixth-generation farm girl from Georgia, Christy was introduced to politics with a college internship.
Christy Seyfert, ASA executive director of government affairs
“That experience was a career changer for me. It showed the impact that public policy has on everyone, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Christy and her husband, Mike, are members of the Kansas Soybean Association, a state in which they own and operate a portion of the family’s fourth-generation farm—including a few soybeans.
In her time on Capitol Hill, Christy worked for the bipartisan House and Senate Agriculture Committees, specializing in farm policy and crop insurance. Her experiences on the Hill and as a crop insurance lobbyist have prepared her well to serve as staff liaison to the Farm Policy Advocacy Team. In that role, Christy guides advocacy decisions affecting the farm safety net, crop insurance and commodity futures, to name a few.
Kendell Culp, a soybean grower from Rensselaer, Indiana, is chair of that advocacy team, and spoke highly of her capabilities both in leading the policy team and of her work with the Farm Policy group.
"Christy continues to impress me with her knowledge of farm policy and how it benefits soybean producers at the farm level. She has a great deal of contacts with key Washington, D.C., influencers that have transpired into valuable relationships that enhance our advocacy efforts,” Culp says of Seyfert, concluding, “She has also done an outstanding job building out our new D.C. advocacy team.”
Kyle Kunkler, ASA director of government affairs for biotechnology & crop protection
ASA members had the opportunity to meet Kyle Kunkler in person just before the COVID-19 pandemic at the 2020 Commodity Classic in San Antonio this February. Kyle was brought on board to serve as staff liaison to the Regulatory Advocacy Team and manage the biotechnology and crop protection portfolio, along with other essential ASA efforts.
“Kyle has a passion for regulatory issues and for helping the American soybean farmer navigate complex concerns such as chemical registrations, public perception of substances we use to control pests and weeds, and other pressing issues,” says Caleb Ragland, soy farmer from Magnolia, Kentucky, and chair of ASA’s Regulatory Advocacy Team.
Before briefly stepping into ASA’s physical office in D.C. pre-pandemic, Kunkler spent three years with Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) managing federal government affairs on food, agriculture, energy and environmental policy. Previously, he served on the legislative teams for congressman Dan Newhouse and congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, as well as with the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA).
Similar to Seyfert, the College of Idaho political economy graduate has a little “farm” in his background—but on the produce side. His mother’s family farms potatoes and onions in eastern Washington state, where Kyle grew up.
“We are exceptionally fortunate to have someone with Kyle’s energy and the passion he possesses on our team. Kyle is such a hard worker and stays in touch almost daily working on the latest developments. I am so impressed with how he consistently goes the extra mile for our industry to not just get things right, but assure ASA’s comments and other correspondence to Congress, the administration—and the courts—are the absolute best representation of ASA, says Ragland.”
Kyle jumped in at a time when litigation surrounding some of those complex issues Ragland referenced were peaking in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and elsewhere in the legal landscape.
“We are also very lucky that Kyle possesses the expertise on the legal side to help us navigate through the stormy waters of regulatory issues and protect our livelihood,” Ragland shared.
Soybeans have significantly benefited from new technologies over the past 30 years, and that trend is not slowing down. However, these tools have also faced their fair share of challenges. With glyphosate and dicamba continuing to take punches in the court system, soybean growers are experiencing uneasiness on whether they will have future access to critical innovations.
“We have to change the narrative around pesticides and biotechnology,” says Kyle Kunkler, director of government affairs overseeing biotech and crop protection policy.
“These tools aren’t only for farmers. They already have a strong track record beyond the farm community and possess even greater potential for improving environmental outcomes and consumer benefits. Those results resonate with people and will ease adoption of the technology, but that story isn’t going to tell itself.”
Kunkler is particularly excited about the future of genetic innovation.
“Using gene editing, developers can now simply activate, deactivate, insert or remove genes—much like a genetic word processor—but in ways that occur regularly in conventional breeding,” he says.
Kunkler explained that this process contrasts with traditional biotechnology where a developer often inserts genes foreign to a plant. In the case of gene editing, the resulting plant can be essentially indistinguishable from a conventionally-bred plant, except it can be developed in one generation instead of many. Additionally, there would be no trade-offs as often seen in the breeding process, such as improving disease resistance while sacrificing yield. He says it is possible in one generation to select existing genes that improve yield, flavor, protein content and nutrient uptake while reducing water usage and better controlling pests.
“This is the one technology that will fundamentally revolutionize agriculture if we can get the regulatory, market and trade angles right,” Kunkler cautiously offered.
News is good regarding positive development on the regulatory landscape for these tools. In May, USDA updated its biotechnology regulations to allow exemption for several categories of modified plants that could have resulted from conventional breeding. The Environmental Protection Agency published a draft rule in September that would allow for similar categories of exemptions from its regulations. Several prominent U.S. trading partners are adopting comparable approaches, which could ease access to foreign markets.
“There’s no doubt we have plenty of work left to do, but it’s encouraging to see momentum building in the right direction,” Kunkler summarized. “We still need to make the case to consumers about how these tools have every potential to make food healthier, safer, better-tasting, longer-lasting, more sustainable and more affordable. That’s the story we need to be telling. Who wouldn’t want that from their grocery aisle?”
ASA has long been a proponent of science and an evidence-based regulatory system for determining responsible use and the future of crop protection tools. Assuring those products studied and deemed safe are available to farmers to choose as they prefer has been an immediate priority for Kunkler upon joining ASA. Be sure to read his policy update on dicamba found on page 24.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought unforeseen challenges to agriculture. Seyfert, as head of ASA’s policy team, was quick to mobilize for soy and led efforts including broad-based collaboration with allied farm groups to assure agriculture’s interests—imminent funding needs, transportation and other supply chain issues, and more—were being considered.
Meantime, the needs and responsibilities of managing a new policy office did not cease, and the pandemic also created hurdles in building out ASA’s policy shop. Seyfert and other ASA staff embraced technology—including virtual interview calls—to identify the right additions to the burgeoning D.C. team. Unlike Kunkler, who had a few brief weeks working in person, the next two Washington additions have never been inside the D.C. office.
Seyfert says of the unusual hiring conditions, “In D.C., being adaptable is an asset, and we have certainly welcomed individuals who have this strength.”
Alexa Combelic, ASA director of government affairs for biodiesel and infrastructure
“I can count on Alexa to keep me informed on what is happening in D.C.—something that has been even more important during COVID-19,” says Rob Shaffer, soybean grower from El Paso, Illinois, and chair of ASA’s Biodiesel & Infrastructure Advocacy Team.
According to Shaffer, Alexa, who joined ASA in early May, “utilizes her years of working on the Hill both on the House and Senate side to push for important priorities including biodiesel, transportation and rural broadband.”
Alexa is among ASA’s new directors of government affairs, leading the biofuels and infrastructure portfolio, in addition to sustainability, transportation and broadband. Shaffer says it has been a pleasure for him to work with Alexa and that he is happy with everyone who has joined the policy team.
Serving in various Hill staff roles the past 10 years, Alexa most recently was legislative director for congressman Joe Courtney of Connecticut, her home state and where she earned a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and history from the University of Connecticut. Combelic worked on an array of issues applicable to soy, among them agriculture, transportation, energy, appropriations, labor, trade, environment and nutrition.
“She’s not shy to speak up as to what she sees as the best direction for ASA, and taking into account the intricacies of D.C. that someone can only know when they are living and working in that D.C. world—things that we as farmers may not be aware of. I appreciate that Alexa has the inside knowledge of best practices in D.C. and among key legislative and regulatory persons to get the job done successfully,” says Shaffer.
He ends by putting it succinctly, “I don’t expect her to come drive my combine, and by the same token, Alexa can instruct us on best ways to advocate in D.C. that we may not have considered.”
Grower profitability does not end at production. Several outside factors play a role in the lifecycle cost of soy. One area that often gets overlooked is the multistep supply chain that is needed to provide growers with inputs and to move product to market.
For years, U.S. agriculture has relied on an extensive network of waterways, railroads, and interstate highways to deliver crops to both domestic and international markets. However, lack of sufficient funding to maintain a state of good repair in recent years has threatened the U.S. soy growers’ competitiveness in this arena.
Looking specifically at waterways, members of the soy family have spent the past several years advocating for a shift in the cost-share allocation for capital investment and major rehabilitation projects funded through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). Currently, these major projects are funded through a cost-share of 50% federal general funds and 50% IWTF dollars. ASA and others have advocated for a shift in this formula to lower IWTF contributions and stretch these dollars further, while also spurring more rapid project development. This adjustment has been realized in the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) language currently moving through Congress, with an updated cost-share allocation of 65% federal general funds and 35% IWTF dollars—an acknowledgement to the ongoing advocacy of inland waterways users who require a modern, more efficient waterway system to compete in the 21st century.
“The major opportunity with WRDA 2020 is the way waterway construction projects can be funded,” says Alexa Combelic, a director of government affairs for ASA who oversees transportation and infrastructure, as well as other areas. “With the shift in cost-share that will more effectively utilize the industry-funded Inland Waterways Trust Fund, we will see improvements that will lead to faster, efficient transportation when we need it most.”
Combelic went on to note that Brazil’s infrastructure improvements over the last several decades have made that nation more competitive in terms of the cost of transporting soybeans. Projects moving forward—like the dredging of the lower Mississippi River basin—will continue to make positive impacts on transit cost competitiveness, she noted.
In addition to waterways, U.S. soy also relies heavily on surface transportation. Priorities at the federal level revolve around projects that can make bridges and roads stronger to allow for heavier trucks and open the door for more efficient transportation. Specifically, a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill would provide state departments of transportation with the consistent, predictable funding needed to plan major capital investment projects effectively.
While not directly related to soy transportation, the ever-growing demand for energy-efficient and low- and no-emissions transit options in our country has impacted a domestic market for soybeans, opening the door for more renewable fuel.
Consumer and market indicators continue to advance demand for renewable and zero-emission energy at home and abroad. As an industry, soybean growers are already poised to play a key role through the production of biodiesel. Biodiesel provides a litany of benefits in addition to being a zero-carbon fuel source: It provides a market for surplus soy oil, creates jobs, diversifies our fuel supply, and increases the value of soybeans.
Combelic described the importance of this secondary market to soy, explaining, “The evolution of biodiesel underscores how innovative and shrewd the soybean industry is when taking on a problem—in this case, a soy oil surplus. Biodiesel has added incredible value to U.S. soybeans at $52 per acre in additional income for the average producer, which is in no small part due to the support of the federal government through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and annual renewable volume obligations.”
At its strongest, Combelic says, the RFS provides a stability in markets, even when soybean producers face uncertainty abroad. However, at its weakest, an RFS that loses integrity through poor federal stewardship may stunt future growth of the biodiesel industry and shortchange soybean farmers—why she says ASA’s advocacy work, along with that of National Biodiesel Board and other interested groups, is so important.
Looking to the future there is promise and potential for the biodiesel industry. Bioheat®, which helps fuel 5 million homes that depend on heating oil, as well as carbon reduction strategies in select areas of the U.S., have helped fuel optimism within the industry. As consumers seek more efficient fuel sources, biodiesel will continue to play an important role, much to the benefit of the American soybean grower.
Virginia Houston, ASA director of government affairs for trade and international affairs
Rounding out the new additions to ASA’s D.C. team is Virginia Houston, who started in June. Virginia manages the trade portfolio, among other big responsibilities.
“Trade and international markets are among the key priorities we focus on at ASA. Virginia has joined the team as a knowledgeable and respected voice both on Capitol Hill and throughout the soybean and agriculture sectors on these important issues,” says Josh Gackle, soy grower from Kulm, North Dakota, and chair of the Trade Promotion and International Affairs Advocacy Team for ASA.
Virginia brought to the table a diverse background in many sectors of agriculture, including working most recently for the American Seed Trade Association and, before that, the National Pork Producers Council and Animal Agriculture Alliance.
Gackle responded to the new D.C. team positively, offering, “Virginia has joined and become a part of a devoted group in D.C. that is working every day to ensure U.S. soybean farmers have a strong voice in government policy in order to continue the success of our farms, families, businesses and communities.”
The Mississippi native’s experience also includes work in USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and a Hill internship. Virginia has a master's in professional studies from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University, with a specialization in advocacy politics, and a B.A. in political science from the University of Mississippi—a far piece away from where her colleagues grew up in Washington State, Connecticut, Georgia and other corners of the country—and again, demonstrating the diversity and depth of the ASA-D.C. policy bench.
Trade continues to make headlines, and its impact on U.S. soybean farmers is nothing to dismiss. With more than 60% of the U.S. soybean crop exported to foreign markets, trade is one of ASA’s biggest policy priorities.
“Access to foreign markets is critical for the continued strength of the U.S. soybean industry,” Virginia Houston, ASA government affairs director over trade said. “Whether that means working on existing markets such as China and Mexico, or pursuing emerging markets in countries like Kenya, Vietnam or Cambodia, ASA will continue to advocate for sound and fair trade policies for our farmer members.”
China remains top of mind as the largest export market for American soybean growers. The COVID-19 pandemic and decimation of Chinese hog herds by African Swine Fever (ASF) led to slow soybean exports in the first half of 2020. However, as the end of the year approaches, orders are mounting, and there is optimism that Chinese purchasing will remain strong.
New free trade agreements with Kenya and the United Kingdom are on the horizon, though it is unlikely either will be completed before the end of the year. The agreement with Kenya would be the United States’ first free trade agreement with an African country and could lead to future deals with other countries on the continent. To take full advantage of new trade deals, differences in ideology related to gene editing, biotech and sustainability practices must be addressed.
As we move into 2020 and the election season, there are a few question marks outstanding in the agricultural trade sphere. The industry has pushed for the U.S. to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral deal negotiated under President Obama between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Since the U.S. withdrew from TPP under President Trump, the remaining parties have ratified the agreement as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP, or TPP-11). However, Vice President Joe Biden has recently spoken out against joining CPTPP, so it is unlikely that the U.S. will join that agreement in the near future.
Looming on next year’s Congressional calendar is the expiration of Trade Promotion Authority’s fast track. Under TPA, the president has the ability to send a trade agreement to Congress for a yes or no vote, and current authorization expires July 1, 2021. While TPA does not need to be immediately renewed—and there is precedent for not renewing immediately after expiration—it is highly unlikely that future free trade agreements could be ratified without TPA in place. Houston says the 2020 election will have an impact on whether there is political willpower to tackle TPA in summer 2021.
Bev Paul, consultant
Bev has worked on soy policy issues for ASA since 2002 and long demonstrated great dedication on topics ranging from conservation, nutrition and the checkoff program to research, data and more. Aquaculture is another portfolio standout which Bev has long championed. As a part of the ASA D.C. team, Bev continues to draw on a wealth of experience and knowledge to advocate for ASA across this broad portfolio.
Jim Kukowski, chair of the Conservation & Precision Ag Advocacy Team and grower from Strathcona, Minnesota, says, “I love working with Bev. She is a very intelligent person. Also, she is fun and easy to work with. She really knows the issues, which makes working on the Conservation and Precision Agricultural Advocacy team easier. We are very happy to have her help and guidance.”
Data privacy and security are constant problems in all industries, and farmers remain cautious about which companies they do business with. One effort that ASA is leading is the Ag Data Transparent effort that audits companies' ag data contracts.
Bev Paul, consultant on the ASA D.C. policy team explains, “Much like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval verifies compliance with Good Housekeeping's standards, the Ag Data Transparent seal recognizes compliance with ag data's Core Principles—the basic guidelines that ag tech providers should following when collecting, using, storing and transferring farmers' ag data.”
More than 20 companies have been certified as “Ag Data Transparent,” and soybean farmers are encouraged to begin at AgDataTransparent.com when considering a contract with an ag tech provider.
Another area in which ASA is committed to the future is sustainability and conservation. Paul points to the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium’s (ESMC) recently-formed Producer’s Circle, a farmer and rancher advisory group to which ASA directors Charles Atkinson (KS) and Andrew Moore (GA) were appointed. Atkinson and Moore are among soy farmer-leaders devoting considerable time to assure ASA is an active part of the ecosystem services market conversation.
EPA estimates that agriculture accounts for 9.9% of U.S. annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (USEPA 2018). However, agriculture and forestry are also significant carbon sinks—together offsetting approximately 12% of total U.S. GHG emissions (USEPA 2018). While forestry and forest soils account for the lion’s share of that carbon sequestration, cropland soils share in that role.
Improved soil carbon sequestration improves agricultural resilience by reducing soil erosion from wind and water and by improving water holding capacity and resistance to drought. ESMC’s goal is to launch a voluntary, national-scale ecosystem services market to sell both carbon and water quality and quantity credits for the agriculture sector by 2022.
Says Paul, “When such a nonprofit market evolves, recognizing and paying farmers for their ecosystem services, ASA will have been at the table since day one.”
ASA is excited about its new partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, focused on a shared goal of improving water quality in the Mississippi River Basin.
“After a robust series of focus groups and surveys to identify farmers’ knowledge and challenges to adopting conservation practices, we are now putting work on the ground,” says Paul.
Initial results involve projects across the soy states. The Walton Family Foundation grant has helped the Indiana Soybean Alliance expand its introductory cover crop program to additional farmers and the Ohio Soybean Association to begin a similar project.
“And, exciting!” Paul adds, “The effort has provided grants to three farmers to cost-share the demonstration of new, next-level conservation practices on their farms.”
ASA will share the results of the Walton Foundation collaborative work in an effort to help more soybean farmers learn from these experiences.
This year during which we have paused to reflect on ASA’s past is now coming to a close. With the organization’s special 100th anniversary year waning, there comes the opportunity to pivot and look to the future. That organizational future and the future of soy policy, with this team in place, has all appearances of being bright.
“Our entire ASA D.C. policy team is one of the best assets as farmers and as an industry that we have,” says Gackle.
The issues outlined in this article are but a very few that ASA’s cohesive policy team is carefully sorting through every day in D.C., sowing the seeds for soy’s future. Both Gackle and Ragland say it is important to support ASA and participate in the advocacy work this team is leading so the organization can continue to grow and be even more effective.
Speaking from his combine in rural Kentucky, Ragland says thoughtfully, “As farmers, I think we can very easily—and quite often do—take for granted these passionate folks who are actively working on our behalf on these issues that are so important to us running a successful farm. We forget these people are in D.C. working early and late every day, and we don’t always think about that devotion that helps us on our farms. Whether out here in the fields or there in D.C., we all have an important job to do to stay successful.”