The Case for Greens to Abandon Farm Bill Conservation Programs

The 114th Congress has convened and the agriculture committee membership has been set. It’s a little-known fact is that the federal farm bill – drafted by the agriculture committees — represents the single largest U.S taxpayer investment in the environment, with $39 billion spent on agriculture-related conservation programs from 1995-2012.

The conservation programs authorized and funded in the bill have helped clean water, save soil, create wildlife habitat and sequester carbon. Their actual purpose varies from land retirement to cost sharing with farmers implementing practices like installing grass strips between stream banks and crop fields.

In short, the federal government subsidizes farm stewardship. And that’s a good thing. Due to this significant commitment from taxpayers, green and conservation groups in one form or another have engaged in the farm bill debate that rolls around every five years or so.

The recent result?

  • 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio were without drinking water for three days in July 2014 due to toxic algae blooms swollen by fertilizer run-off.
  • The Des Moines Water Works, struggling to keep customers’ water clean of nitrates from farm fields, has filed a historic lawsuit to force upstream polluters to change practices.
  • The price tag to fix the agriculture pollutant fueled Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone was recently tallied to $2.7 billion annually. To address the Chesapeake Bay’s problems is pegged between $5-6 billion annually.
  • From 2006-2011 U.S farmers plowed under and converted 1.3 million acres of prairie grassland to corn and soybeans.
  • From 2007-2012 9.7 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program — prime wildlife habitat – expired and were returned to production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, those 9.7 CRP million acres also sequestered 16.1 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

We’ve lost and in many cases reversed the remarkable conservation gains made in the nineties when enviros first engaged the farm bill. The recent boom in commodity agriculture — powered by increased global demand for cheap meat, ethanol mandates and risk erasing farm subsidies — has made conservation financially unattractive to famers. Intensively farming fence-row to fence-row is the norm.

When the dust settled in the 2014 farm bill conservation programs took a $4 billion hit. Meanwhile commodity farmers – the very same group that also benefits from conservation subsidies – walked away with billions of tax dollars in brand new insurance subsidies. Let that sink in. Subsidies for conservation went down, and subsidies for production went up.

It truly is the greens vs. the lions in the farm bill coliseum.

Our method of shooting voluntary conservation money out of a cannon and hoping it lands on a farmer with the greatest environmental need is wildly inefficient. And ten-year Conservation Reserve Program contracts are laughable in an era of desperate need for long-term carbon storage and permanent habitat for at risk species.

So if the ultimate goal of farm bill engaged environmentalists is for positive trend lines in water quality, erosion, green house gases and places for critters to frolic, what exactly is being accomplished anymore?

Maybe its time to abandon advocating for voluntary conservation funding and for environmentalists to instead expend precious time and resources fighting for tougher regulation of agriculture. It worked with the hard fought battle to attach conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies.

What if the conservation community just walked away? (or at least delivered a credible head fake?)

Times have changed. We are in a new era of demand driven agriculture. Congress is paralyzed. And the hook and bullet crowd – a key conservation arbiter between greens and Agribiz – are under fire and derided as “green decoys.”

How much new funding is possible in such a toxic atmosphere? More important, how can cuts be stopped?

The key is that without greens doing the heavy lifting on Capital Hill to ensure money is there for farmers who want to do the right thing, the Agriculture Lobby would have to pick up the slack instead. Most farmers like getting paid to do conservation. And the Ag Lobby gets to do what it loves most – employ more lobbyists. Why not hand the baton to those who represent the end users of conservation money and take a much needed breather?

Going into the last farm bill none of the commodity groups listed conservation programs in their priorities. Not one. Yet ask farm leaders what the solution to environmental woes like Toledo, Des Moines and the Gulf Dead Zone and the answer is voluntary conservation.

The time is fast approaching when agriculture will have to vigorously defend conservation programs. How long does the non-point source exemption from the Clean Water Act last as congressional representation gets more urban and drinking water contamination for cities worse?

Farm groups should “ditch” the histrionics over EPA’s Waters of the U.S. rule and instead raise a ruckus over cuts to conservation. At least farmers would appear in that scenario to care about the environment and not be seen as dodging responsibility over pollution that Americans can see and taste.

I know suggesting the conservation community forsake the farm bill sounds like preposterous heresy and probably is. Even bloodied and bruised from the last, long campaign, the same groups will likely saddle up again if and when the next farm bill rolls around. And they deserve our thanks.

But as righteous as the farm bill conservation cause appears, it also means being taken for granted while begging for crumbs as farm lobbyists sit on their hands and the environment gets much, much worse.

Don Carr