Buy California Wine, Kill an Endangered Species

This is part 2 of a blog about the recent farm bill debacle.  See part 1 here.

And now, the story of a wealthy specialty crop lobby who publicly promote sustainability, but privately lobbied against one farm bill amendment so they could drain wetlands in California without losing any subsidies…

For over two years, National Wildlife Federation has made it one of our top priorities to reconnect conservation compliance to crop insurance. When Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) stepped up to sponsor the bipartisan Crop Insurance Accountability Act , we praised the bill and put our full support behind it as an amendment that would correct a loophole in the flawed House Farm Bill. When we learned that specialty crop growers were putting pressure on Congress not to include the amendment, which was withdrawn in the eleventh hour, we were devastated – and perplexed. What happened?

The Crop Insurance Accountability Act would have ensured that farmers who drain wetlands or farm highly erodible land without using a conservation plan are not eligible for certain farm bill benefits -namely, crop insurance premium subsidies paid for by taxpayers. So we asked – why do specialty crop organizations want farmers to be able to drain wetlands and use irresponsible farming practices, and why do they want taxpayers to pay for it?

The Answer: Vernal Pools

The June 20th edition of Environment and Energy Daily reports that the California Association of Winegrape Growers was concerned about the “wetlands portion of the amendment’s language.” But California has already drained more than 90% of its wetlands  – so what is left for grape growers and specialty crop growers to drain?

Vernal pool. Photo courtesy of flickr user marymactavish
Vernal pool. Photo courtesy of flickr user marymactavish
Vernal pools (“vernal” meaning “of the spring”) are mini-wetlands that occur annually in the Central Valley of California. The pools are biodiversity hotspots, supporting over 200 species of plants and many endangered or threatened animal species, such as the fairy shrimp. Only 10% of California’s vernal pools remain, and the remaining pools are in danger of being destroyed for agriculture, among other things.

So, not only do California specialty crop growers want to drain wetlands, they want to do it without all the bother of losing free federal handouts to help pay for their crop insurance.

The funny thing is, commodity crop associations not historically known for their commitment to good environmental stewardship supported the Thompson-Fortenberry amendment. Organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, and the American Soybean Association are on the record as supporters of re-linking conservation compliance and crop insurance.  So, why didn’t specialty crop growers get on board – don’t they even care about sustainability?

Be Wary of the White Hat

In fact, the website for the California Association of Winegrape Growers lists “wildlife habitat” and “sustainable winegrowing” under their menu of projects. United Fresh, a leading association of the fresh produce industry has an entire webpage devoted to sustainability and recently released a sustainability guide. United Fresh even created their own “Center for Global Produce Sustainability” with a grant from Bayer Crop Science, to evaluate and improve sustainable practices within the industry.

Sustainability is a buzzword used often interchangeably with good environmental stewardship, so the implication to consumers is that these groups wear a white hat, and are committed to promoting practices that protect land, water, and wildlife.

Why then, would United Fresh and the California Association of Winegrape Growers oppose a farm bill amendment that would promote good stewardship?

Ultimately, the House farm bill failed anyway. This is not good for conservation, but it does give us some time to try and be sure that a better version goes through the House. In the meantime, conservationists can try to get the specialty crop growers on the right side. And read our wine labels carefully before buying.

Take Action

Let specialty crop growers know they made a mistake by lobbying against the Crop Insurance Accountability Act.  Let them know that you, as a consumer and a taxpayer, want to know that specialty crop producers are protecting their wetlands and following basic conservation measures to protect land, water, and wildlife.  Click here to find contact info for the California Association of Winegrape Growers and here to find contact  info for United Fresh Produce Association.