There’s something undeniably special about anything turning 90 — be it an individual, a company, or a trade association. The reason is simple — not too many people/organizations ever make it the nine-decade mark in the first place. That’s why the world-at-large tends to honor any entity that reaches this important milestone.
Of course, for legacy trade associations, one of the secrets to being in business for this long has a lot to do with knowing when to adapt to the changing world around them. Otherwise, they run the very serious risk of not remaining relevant or remaining viable.
For example, take the case of Arlington, VA-based CropLife America. Founded in 1933, the organization is celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2023. According to Chris Novak, President/CEO, the major reason his association has survived through nine decades ties directly back to its ability to evolve as the industry it serves has.
“If there’s one word that best describes CropLife America today, it has to be innovation,” says Novak. “In agriculture, we are and have been a technology industry that provides service to farmers. But the innovation has certainly changed and evolved over those 90 years.
“I also think that as an organization, we are doing things very differently today than what we did 50 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” he continues. “The way we communicate to Congress, legislators, and other market influencers who impact our industry has changed this whole time.”
To appreciate just how deep this level of evolution for CropLife America has been over the years, Novak goes back to the organization’s beginnings in 1933 as the Agricultural Insecticide and Fungicide Association started out based in New York City. At that time, the association functioned as a “certifier” of chemicals. “When CropLife America was formed, it was about ensuring the effectiveness and efficacy of the products so that the industry would have some integrity with farmers,” he says.
Today, 90 years later, the primary function of CropLife America oversees multiple levels of pesticide certification and usage — inside of the agricultural world as well as outside of it. “Clearly, since that time, our focus has shifted as the demands on the industry have shifted,” says Novak. “Today, our industry is about providing products to help farmers deal with challenges such as weed resistance, insect control, and a changing climate. Farmers are going to need new and different tools to deal with those things. Our industry has also had to innovate and address consumer concerns about such issues as soil health, water quality, and the protection of non-target species.”
A History of Evolution
In truth, CropLife America spent many of its early years evolving to keep pace with changes to its industry. Only 16 years after its founding, in 1949, the organization changed its name to the National Agricultural Chemicals Association (NACA). It also relocated its headquarters to Washington, DC, to be closer to the nation’s policymakers.
The next few name changes took place fairly rapidly. During the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it became the American Crop Protection Association. And in 2002, the name CropLife America was adopted — to better reflect the wide range of products now being overseen through the association’s annual activities and legislative efforts. The most recent evolution of the organization happened in 2021, when CropLife America relocated its offices to Arlington in conjunction with numerous other trade associations — combining both physical resources and shared services. This included the Agricultural Retailers Association, The Fertilizer Institute, and the Council of Producers and Distributors of Agrotechnology.
Today, CropLife America employs 34 individuals dedicated to looking out for the interests of its member companies. It shares a few of these with a sister organization, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE).
As for himself, Novak’s path to heading up CropLife America also involved a series of innovations and evolutions. However, he has always stayed within the agricultural industry throughout his career. “I’m a farm kid from Eastern Iowa originally,” says Novak. “I started out working on Capitol Hill for Senator Chuck Grassley (a long-time member of the Senate Agriculture Committee). “I then spent 11 years working in the pork industry before moving over to the American Soybean Association, Syngenta, and the Indiana soybean and corn organizations.” Novak formally joined CropLife America in 2018, when former President/CEO Jay Vroom retired.
When considering the long history of CropLife America, Novak can point to several milestone moments the organization has had a hand in over that time. This would include helping pass the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996 and the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act in 2004. Still, he believes CropLife America’s most important accomplishment over the past 90 years was helping to get the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) established in 1947.
“In the 1920s and early 1930s, there was no regulatory body overseeing the pesticide industry,” says Novak. “Any company could sell ‘stuff’ to farmers, whether or not that ‘stuff’ was effective in helping them meet their field needs. I think the agricultural industry was worried that farmers were getting sold ‘snake oil.’ That was the heart of our organization when it started.
“Then, flash forward to 1947,” he continues. “Congress passed FIFRA. So now you have set up this science-based regulatory framework, which 70 years later has changed with the times and been amended multiple times by Congress. But FIFRA still stands as the gold standard for how to regulate pesticides.”
Flashing further forward to 2023, Novak says CropLife America and its members are facing myriad challenges from numerous sources. In his mind, perhaps the most concerning of these comes from individual state legislators. In recent years, many states have targeted pesticides (and now seed treatments) with restrictive labeling/usage requirements, such as the Proposition 65 Initiative in California.
To this end, one of the major goals for CropLife America in 2023 is to have Congress pass legislation to address this issue once and for all. “Legislation that CropLife America is supporting would preempt individual states from requiring pesticide labels that are in direct conflict with EPA’s findings on these products,” says Novak. “A state should not be able to force pesticide manufacturers to have a product label that contradicts the safety findings from the federal government’s EPA.
“Another example of a state challenge is PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) legislation,” he continues. “Part of this issue is driven based upon the findings of a since-retracted study where EPA couldn’t reproduce the original results. That doesn’t stop activists from using the study to push legislation that restricts farmer access to pesticides.”
Another goal for 2023 involves getting some of the pesticide industry’s talking points in front of consumer groups. Through a series of surveys, CropLife America has documented some of the misconceptions that consumers have regarding pesticides. This includes the fact that most believe industry manufacturers can have their products approved for field use in as little as six months’ time (it actually takes 10 to 12 years on average).
To combat this, CropLife America has conducted a series of what it calls The Pesticide Discussion. “These are in-person training sessions where we invite company employees and agricultural allies and partners to attend,” says Novak. “Here, we provide them with the knowledge on how to talk with consumers, neighbors, or family members who may be a little hesitant about anything to do with pesticides and have questions.”
One of the positive messages the industry can communicate to consumers is how pesticide use can help with improving the world’s climate, he says. “We are vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Novak. “The use of pesticides has allowed for conservation tillage to take place. This has created an opportunity for farmers to use cover crops in a manner that sequesters carbon.”
Getting these kinds of positive industry messages to the public will be of more important for CropLife America and its members going forward, he adds, as the number of court challenges to pesticides has increased exponentially in recent years. For sev-eral years now, high-profile court cases involving such popular pesticides as glyphosate and paraquat have been the norm. In recent months, more such challenges to product approval and/or registrations have been filed against some older chemistries such as 2,4-D and dicamba.
According to Novak, the reason for all this activity in the nation’s courtrooms these days ties back to a regular cycle of political back-and-forth, which has become more pronounced in recent years. “You can see this shift take place every four to eight years, where there is a political decision asking if ‘this paper should be included in the data we are evaluating or not?’” he says. “The activists are always going to utilize the court system to get what they want when they can’t get Congress to act or get EPA to use unproven data.”
Fighting against this trend, Crop-Life America has taken a direct approach. The association has actively collaborated with the President Joe Biden Administration to address such legislation as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and its potential impact on the pesticides marketplace. “[The administration] realizes that having a judge decide on how and when to use a pesticide isn’t the best way for these decisions to be made,” says Novak. “So, the administration has laid out how federal agencies can oversee these processes and withstand legal challenges involving ESA.”
Somewhat surprisingly, CropLife America has also engaged the aid of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in some instances. “We have realized that we can’t take on some issues affecting pesticides like we did in the past and be successful,” says Novak. “So, we’ve incorporated some different strategies, such as working with NGOs. These groups may be plaintiffs in some of the lawsuits out there, but if we can get them on board with improvements to the regulatory system, that might be enough to help move the needle with Congress for some beneficial proposals to get passed.”
Looking Forward, Near & Long Term
In acknowledgement of CropLife America’s 90th anniversary, the association is planning some recognition at its annual meeting, slated to take place September 12-14 in Nashville, TN. On the evening of September 14, CropLife America will host a 90th anniversary gala for members and attendees, featuring some special video salutes to the organization.
“We’ve been collecting comments from members and growers via video,” says Novak. “We have been asking them to reflect on the history of CropLife America and how innovation has changed their lives and agriculture over the years.”
Beyond this, Novak says CropLife America is already making plans to move the association and the industry it serves forward. Short-term, with 2024 being an important election year, CropLife America will work to engage with the various presidential candidates and campaigns so that issues impacting its membership are being addressed. The association is also hoping to have Congress approve more funding for EPA to hire additional employees. “This should help the agency be able to work through the backlog of product labels it is currently dealing with — which at last count, numbered at almost 19,000 items!”
And what about plans for the next 90 years? “Think about it this way: What were the tools farmers were using 90 years ago to control weeds and pests on their farms?” he says. “I’ve seen incredible innovations — going from seven tillage passes in crop fields to no-till systems and corn yields increasing from 160 bushels per acre to 250 bushels today. All these innovations were made possible in part by the use of safe and effective pesticides coming into the picture. I definitely see a world where CropLife America and its members are still an important part of whatever agricultural innovations have been introduced by then.”