California Lemon Growers Sue USDA

California Lemon Growers Sue USDA

Citrus industry leaders are suing the USDA because the agency decided to allow the importation of Argentine lemons without following its own rules.

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In announcing the suit, they state the federal Plant Protection Act makes unmistakably clear which factors Congress intended the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to consider.

“The agency must ‘reduce to the extent practicable … the risk of dissemination of plant pests and noxious weeds,’ and it must base decisions affecting imports … on sound science,” states a press release from the U.S. Citrus Science Council (USCSC).

The council notes the House Agricultural Committee, upon passing the Plant Protection Act, explained:  “The past cannot be altogether remedied, but the future can be safeguarded, and this Act will go a long way toward accomplishing this end.”

The USCSC represents approximately 750 family farmers and the overwhelming majority of U.S. fresh lemon production. It filed the suit against USDA for implementing a rule allowing Argentine lemons into the U.S. from areas where numerous pests and diseases are found, says Richard Pidduck, a Santa Paula, CA, lemon grower and plaintiff.

“It is obvious that political considerations outweighed the basic administrative process and science for the past 12 months,” he says. “President Obama traveled to Argentina in March of 2016 and upon his return, USDA immediately announced the Argentine proposal has been resurrected.”

This was the same proposal placed on hiatus because of issues regarding the efficacy of its scientific evaluations and the proposed systems approach for protecting the domestic citrus industry, Pidduck says.

“Then President Trump met with the Argentine President in April of 2017 after which access was soon announced,” he says.

Politics aside, members of the California citrus industry are challenging the rule because the development violated provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that establishes how federal agencies can issue rules.

According to California Citrus Mutual (CCM) President Joel Nelsen, the rule is claimed to be grounded on information gained from an Argentine site visit said to have taken place in 2015.

“Despite repeated requests and the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request, we have never been allowed to review a trip report for that visit. The rule itself provides no information on this foundational visit. That is just one reason why the rule is fatally flawed,” Nelsen says. “Finally, the industry argued vehemently that invasive pests historically infest urban areas prior to transiting to commercial farming locations. USDA did not respond to that argument, which is also a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.”

In September 2016, USDA dispatched a team of experts to review farming, harvesting, packing, and government adherence to the proposed systems approach, says San Joaquin Valley citrus grower Curt Holmes.

“The visit was simply a paper exercise inasmuch the Argentine industry was in a dormant stage at the time of the trip,” he says. “As a grower of lemons and other citrus varieties, I know when pests are prevalent and when the optimum time for evaluating pressures exists. Flush, bloom and petal fall is the major time frame for that to occur. For USDA to assume they can make a determination before any of that occurs is absurd.”

Robert Grether, a Ventura area lemon grower and USCSC Board member whose family has been farming for five generations, knows first-hand the pressures of invasive pests.  He and his brother hope to continue the tradition each generation has worked so hard to sustain.

“But our farming costs have soared since the Asian Citrus Psyllid moved into Ventura County from the Los Angeles metropolitan area, so it is confounding to us that USDA didn’t address the extraordinary risk of a new disease spreading from an urban area to a rural area in this rule,” he says. “We are trying to protect our region from an incurable disease already destroying citrus throughout the Western Hemisphere, and now the administration has chosen to compound our vulnerability.”

The USCSC is striving to understand why this rule is being put into effect when the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture & Rural Prosperity in America, issued in April, clearly enunciated policies to preserve family farms to promote American agriculture and protect the rural communities where food and fiber are cultivated.

The lawsuit argues that incomplete science and political considerations led to a flawed rulemaking process. The end result, states the USCSC, is to use the California lemon industry as a pawn to achieve other goals. The lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court in Fresno, CA.