Secret Farm Bill Threatens An ‘Environmental Cliff’

by Don Carr, via the Environmental Working Group

Congressional leaders in search of a compromise to avoid plunging off the “fiscal cliff” are under growing pressure from the agriculture subsidy lobby and its friends in Congress to attach a subsidy-laden farm bill to legislation ostensibly designed to straighten out the nation’s finances.

Bypassing debate and hearings on a five-year, near-trillion-dollar piece of legislation would be profoundly undemocratic. It would also enshrine a bill that is as devastating for the environment as the fiscal cliff would be for the economy.

Both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill include $6 billion in cuts to conservation programs. Should a new version emerge from the fiscal cliff negotiations, these misguided cuts are sure to be part of the deal.

Industrial agriculture – not manufacturing, gas drilling or mining – is the largest contributor to America’s water pollution problem. And despite the high cost to taxpayers and businesses, most farm operations are exempt from the federal Clean Water Act. State governments, meanwhile, have little authority to compel farmers to control soil, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that flow off their fields and into water supplies. This leaves the farm bill’s current conservation programs – the ones slated for deep cuts – as the only line of defense.

Land protected under conservation programs is also particularly effective at fighting climate change because it keeps large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. The carbon that would be released as a result of the likely conservation cuts in a fiscal cliff cum secret farm bill could equal the annual emissions of two million passenger vehicles.

To make things worse, the centerpiece of such a bill would almost surely be lavish new subsidies for bloated crop insurance policies, which already allow some farmers to turn a profit by plowing up and cultivating poor and environmentally sensitive land on an industrial scale, pumping still more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As one farmer told The New York Times, “I can farm on low-quality land that I know is not going to produce and still turn a profit.”

More recently, a EWG analysis found that the combination of unlimited subsidies, ethanol mandates and high prices has contributed to the loss of millions of acres of wetlands and grasslands in parts of the Great Plains, decimating wildlife and increasing water pollution from farms. EWG research has also shown that polluted runoff from farms is driving up the cost of drinking water and that soil erosion is growing worse.

Not long ago, American farmers were required to engage in common-sense conservation measures in exchange for the lavish, taxpayer-funded crop insurance subsidies they get – a quid pro quo called “conservation compliance.” But efforts to revive this requirement are unlikely to make it into the secret farm bill the subsidy lobby is pushing, even though editorial boards in farm country have been clamoring for it and farmers overwhelmingly support it. A 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll found that two-thirds of Iowa farmers agreed that they should be required to conserve soil on highly erodible cropland – regardless of whether they get support from federal farm programs.

Members of Congress who care about clean water and the planet’s increasingly volatile climate should resist the undemocratic attempts to sneak this badly flawed farm bill into law.

Don Carr is a Senior Adviser at the Environmental Working Group. This piece was originally published at EWG and was reprinted with permission.

3 Responses to Secret Farm Bill Threatens An ‘Environmental Cliff’

  1. It seems to me that environmentalists writing on farm issues need to make a distinction between “farmers” and corporate farmers. Typicaly we think of a farmer as someone who lives on a piece of land that he or she works. But as I understand it from reading articles on environmental farming issues, a great many of the subsidies referred to in the article wind up in the pockets of corporate suits who have nothing to do with with the hard work of producing the nation’s food.

    The distinction, if valid, is an important one because farmers generally have the sympathy of the public, whereas agribiz — the force I suspect is behind upcoming back door farm bill with its protection GMOs, lack of support for conservation and so on — has little public support. It’s easier to get the public riled up against giveaways to agribiz than subsidies for farmers.

  2. This Farm Bill is also laden with provisions that are very bad for forest management on our public lands, under the guise of ‘expediting’ beetle controls without environmental reviews.

  3. DonEWG says:

    Philip — thanks for the comment. Problem is with that distinction is that a very small % of farms are owned or farmed by corporations. Most of the large farms in the US are family owned — and operated under LLCs. Modern technology has enabled a small number of people to farm corn and soybeans at an industrial scale. There is also a lot of farm land that is owned by investors that is cash rented to farmers — and therefore they have little incentive to take care of land and water.

    The bigger problem is federal policies like subsidized crop insurance and corn ethanol mandates that have made farming even the most environmentally sensitive and unproductive land profitable, coupled with a glaring lack of regulation. Add to this our government’s stubborn support of just a handful of crops and the expansion of cheap protein desire in India and Asia and we now have built a dangerous sea of monoculture of corn and soybeans — land and chemical intensive crops — across the landscape.