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Farm Bill Loophole Threatens America’s Waters and Wildlife
In a year when people are busy following election news, the happenings on Capitol Hill have taken a backseat to Presidential campaign politics. This means legislation that would typically take center stage is being moved through Congress with little to no attention.
With the Farm Bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that touches most Americans in one way or another, being kept out of the limelight could allow some very harmful policies to progress. Unless members of Congress who care about protecting habitat and saving wetlands step up to fix the legislation, decades of conservation achievements could get wiped out.
Subsidizing the Destruction of Wetlands and Habitat
The Senate will soon begin debate on its version of the bill, which makes an effort to move away from direct cash subsidies to farmers. Federally subsidized crop insurance would become the main safety net for farmers – guaranteeing their income, whether or not there is a crop failure or weather disaster.
For this reason, federal crop insurance is extremely popular – over 260 million acres are covered by the program, a participation rate of over 80 percent for the major crops. With increased participation comes an increased cost: the Congressional Budget Office estimates the taxpayer cost over the next decade to be $90 billion.
While replacing direct cash subsidies with federal crop insurance is good policy in many ways, such a move creates a problem in that, unlike other farm subsidies, federal crop insurance does not require farmers to comply with basic conservation requirements.
Known as “conservation compliance,” this policy ensures that where public money is invested, farmers will implement measures to minimize erosion on their most erosion-prone fields and refrain from draining wetlands. The penalty for not meeting these basic stewardship expectations is withholding agricultural subsidies – except for subsidized crop insurance. Where farmers are willing to forgo conservation payments and other, smaller commodity support programs, there would be nothing left to ensure protection for soils and wetlands.
To learn more about conservation compliance, read our Conservation Compliance Factsheet (pdf).
Exacerbated by extremely high commodity prices, this giant loophole in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill could result in huge increases in soil erosion and the largest taxpayer subsidized destruction of wetlands since the policy was established in 1985.
Closing the Loophole
The good news is there is a simple fix. Congress can make sure that current conservation compliance provisions for Farm Bill programs are retained and re-applied to federal subsidies for crop insurance.
This common sense solution does not require radical reforms, nor will it increase spending. Instead, re-establishing the existing and logical covenant between taxpayers and producers represented by the conservation compliance regimen can save tax dollars, protect natural resources and increase conservation outcomes relative to current conditions. It is imperative that the 2012 Farm Bill takes this opportunity to steer federal policy toward an agricultural future that serves all Americans. It seems like more than a fair request in exchange for our $90 billion investment in subsidizing crop insurance.