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How Big Ag Erodes the Farm Bill's Environmental Protections

The Farm Bill is arguably America's biggest piece of environmental legislation and it's kind of rotten.

If you had to name the federal government’s biggest investment in the environment, would you pick the EPA?

If you did, you’d be wrong.

The conservation section or “title” of the federal farm bill represents the single largest expenditure of tax dollars to protect water and soil, sequester green house gases, and preserve wildlife habitat. The bill sets up and funds initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to stop cultivating fragile, highly erodible land, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps them implement pollution control measures such as planting grass buffers between stream banks and farm fields.

These programs matter because industrial agriculture, not manufacturing, gas drilling or mining, is the largest contributor to water pollution in America, and the list of waters fouled by agricultural runoff grows each day: Chesapeake Bay, Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, the Gulf of Mexico, and on and on.

Agricultural runoff also contaminates drinking water. Des Moines, Iowa, has one of the largest water treatment plants in the world, primarily to remove farm pollution. Toledo, Ohio, estimates that it costs an extra $2,000-$3,000 a day just to clean up the agricultural pollutants in its water. USDA economists put the nationwide cost of cleansing drinking water of just one major agricultural pollutant – nitrate – at more than $4.8 billion a year.

Despite these costs, most farm operations are exempt from the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, and state governments have little authority to compel farmers to control their water contamination, let alone soil erosion.

That’s why the farm bill’s embattled conservation programs are so critical. These taxpayer-supported incentives to encourage farmers to implement environmentally friendly practices are our only line of defense against water pollution from agriculture and soil erosion.

Record high prices for commodity crops and misguided federal mandates to produce more corn ethanol fuel are putting unprecedented pressure on the nation’s land and water. Meanwhile the farm bill’s conservation programs are being cut year after year. Going into this year’s debate over renewing the farm bill, appropriations for those programs had fallen $4 billion short of the authorized amount.

Sadly, Congress seems disinclined to set things right. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s recently passed farm bill proposal would create a brand new program to guarantee much of the business revenue of mega farms growing corn and soybeans. To make room in part for this new entitlement, it would cut the conservation title by $6.4 billion over ten years. This includes slashing 7 million acres from the Conservation Reserve Program.

That’s foolish enough, but the Senate committee’s bill would compound the damage by expanding federal crop insurance subsidies without requiring farmers who benefit from them to take steps to protect wetlands and grasslands. There was a time when farm subsidies came with “conservation strings attached” under what came to be known as the conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers, but Congress eliminated this requirement in a previous farm bill. The measure approved by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee continues on this disastrous path.

Insurance subsidies, which have become the most expensive income support program for farmers, should go only to farmers who agree to protect these vulnerable areas and stem soil erosion, but instead the committee voted to create a brand new, no-strings attached program that would guarantee much of the business revenue of mega-farms growing corn and soybeans.

Inevitably, the committee’s proposal will further accelerate the loss of the “prairie pothole” lands that support migratory birds and other wildlife and increase soil loss and the use of farm chemicals, further polluting our rivers and lakes. Clearing 7 million acres of CRP land is the yearly carbon emissions equivalent of an additional 2 million passenger vehicles.

Congress’s approach is directly at odds with what most Americans want. In a 2011 national poll, 52 percent said subsidies for crops such as corn and soybeans should top the list of programs to be cut, and 49 percent named crop insurance as the next target. Only 31 percent ranked conservation programs as top targets for cuts. Furthermore, a sizeable majority – 60 percent – said farmers should be required to meet environmental standards such as protecting water quality or soil health as a condition of receiving federal subsidies. That jumped to 65 percent in the six biggest corn ethanol-producing states.

Unregulated industrial agriculture is putting unprecedented pressure on the environment while Congress showers profitable, industrial-scale growers with taxpayer-paid subsidies funded in part by cutting conservation. It’s yet another sad indicator of how much Congress is out of touch with the priorities of most Americans.

Photo (cc) Flickr user Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

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