The uncertain future of Farm Bill conservation programs

By Margaret Wilson Reis — Sept. 17, 2013 at 10:30am

LAND_Hamburg IA_SCaravelloOn September 30, 2013, the one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill will expire. Congress appears unlikely to pass another. If Congress does not, the country stands to see the “single, largest source of funding for conservation on private U.S. land” reduced or even eliminated.

The Farm Bill is the primary food and agriculture legislation in the United States, and it affects many aspects of the US food production system. First established during the Great Depression, the Farm Bill is set for renewal every five years. The most recent update occurred in 2008.  While the impacts of the bill range far and wide, the Farm bill has profound impacts on environmental stewardship and conservation in the US. (For a detailed discussion of those impacts, check out the recent article by Linda Breggin and Bruce Myers in Vol. 37.2 of HELR.) One key aspect of the Farm Bill’s environmental impact is its maintenance of environmental programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which are essential in defending against both soil erosion and water pollution from farm operations exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Although Congress never reauthorized the 2008 Farm Bill, some of its provisions were extended through September 30, 2013. This extension continued mandatory funding for various farm bill programs, but it did not provide funding for the environmental programs that lacked a mandatory funding baseline continuing beyond 2012. Thus, while the 2008 Farm Bill allocated $24 billion to conservation and environmental programs, many of these have remained without funding throughout 2013. If Congress opts for another extension rather than a new comprehensive bill, the conservation and environmental programs negatively impacted by the 2012 extension will likely continue to go unfunded. This lack of funding will threaten the efficacy, if not the very existence of such programs.

Congress has at least attempted to pass a new farm bill, but it’s not much better for conservation and environmental objectives. The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, passed by the Senate in June would cut conservation funding by about $3.5 billion and consolidate various programs into larger umbrella programs (however, it would at least require conservation compliance for receipt of crop insurance subsidies). The House’s version of the bill would cut conservation programs by $5 billion and would not require conservation compliance. While the House initially voted down the bill, it later passed a pared down version that removed the nutrition title. These current proposed reforms represent a step up from a total lack of funding for conservation programs, but they would allow farmers who do not implement conservation measures to receive subsidies regardless, and are far from ideal.

With little time remaining before September 30 and the crisis in Syria having taken much of Congress’ attention, it seems unlikely that a comprehensive bill will be passed before the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill extension at the end of this month. If Congress does manage to pass a new bill, it will likely be one that weakens conservation programs for the next five years. The future is looking bleak for Farm Bill conservation programs.

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