Farm Policy and Environmental Protection: It’s Time to Raise the Bar

Utah -- EllieBy Linda K. Breggin and Bruce Myers — Apr. 16 at 4:43pm

When the new Farm Bill finally passed this February, two years behind schedule, many environmental groups breathed a sigh of relief–if not outright celebrated.  In addition to other conservation provisions, the bill included a hard-fought requirement for farmers to adopt basic soil conservation measures to obtain crop insurance subsidies.  Although the soil conservation requirements aren’t new, they had not been linked to crop insurance subsidies for many years and instead were a quid pro quo only for receiving direct subsidy payments. With the new Farm Bill’s emphasis on crop insurance subsidies in lieu of direct payments to support the agriculture sector, the environmental need to tie conservation measures to crop insurance became acute.

Commonly known as “conservation compliance,” these Farm Bill provisions are aimed at reducing soil erosion by requiring farmers to develop conservation plans for what are known as highly erodible lands.  Conservation compliance has contributed to substantial reductions in soil erosion. According to USDA data, soil erosion declined by about forty percent annually from 1982 through 1997. But despite the track record of success, it took a multi-year, concerted campaign simply to apply conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies. Environmental groups rightly see this addition to the new Farm Bill as a victory. As Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which helped lead the campaign, told EE News: “We are certainly going to be celebrating this bill . . . . . I do think it’s the best we can get.”

At the same time, however, conservation compliance only partially addresses the environmental consequences of large-scale commodity crop production. Not only sediment pollution, but also nutrient and pesticide pollution resulting from commodity crop operations can have harmful effects both locally and downstream. Nutrient pollution, for example, has had wide‐ranging and costly impacts—from the dead zones that form in the Gulf of Mexico and other water bodies, to polluted streams, rivers, and lakes, to contaminated drinking water.

Agriculture is the only major industrial sector that is routinely exempted from baseline environmental safeguards. This is not to say that there are no requirements in environmental laws that apply to the agriculture industry, but environmental laws are more noteworthy for their exemptions for agriculture than for their coverage of it. And while many agricultural operations do implement some stewardship practices, pollution resulting from commodity crop production remains a significant national problem.

As a result, the costs associated with the environmental impacts are not accounted for by either the seller of commodity crops (the farmer) or the purchaser (such as grain‐trading companies, meatpackers, and feedlots).  Instead, the externalized pollution costs attributable to large-scale agriculture are borne by the public.

In an HELR article last year, we made two proposals. First, to reduce the impacts of downstream pollution, we argued that large‐scale commodity crop operations that choose to accept federal subsidy payments should assume responsibility for implementing a baseline set of stewardship practices designed to minimize nutrient pollution. The aim is not to establish a significant new administrative program, but rather a workable, streamlined process for adoption of stewardship measures that can be integrated into existing subsidy program administration.

Second, to increase public access to information on the sources and quantities of nutrient pollution entering surface waters and groundwater, we recommended that large‐scale commodity crop operations publicly report on the quantity, type, and timing of fertilizers they apply.

Disclosure of fertilizer usage would increase public access to information on the sources and quantities of nutrient pollution entering surface waters and groundwater, while at the same time helping to discourage practices that result in overuse. Existing environmental disclosure programs (think Toxics Release Inventory) work in part because they cause the disclosing entity to focus on its chemicals use, which in turn can lead to opportunities for reductions – some of which can save money and increase efficiency. Reductions also occur in response to perceived public or market pressure. The goal is to generate an easy‐to‐understand dataset while minimizing the administrative burden on operators.

We proposed that these requirements be applied to large-scale commodity crop operations—farms that produce crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans and gross $500,000 dollars or more in annual sales—because as a class they represent a large share of production, can generate substantial pollution, have the potential to afford conservation measures, and receive the most federal farm subsidies.

The 2014 Farm Bill took an important step toward enhanced environmental protection by linking conservation compliance to crop insurance. And yet, much more can reasonably be expected of large-scale commodity crop operations as a condition of federal support.  If we settle for retention of current requirements, we risk setting the bar too low.