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Here’s how the House’s Farm Bill would undermine environmental protections

Work requirements for food stamps might be getting lots of attention, but the Farm Bill could hurt the environment too.

A farmer plows his fields in the small northeastern agricultural town of Eaton, Colorado, on February 10, 2017. (CREDIT: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images)
A farmer plows his fields in the small northeastern agricultural town of Eaton, Colorado, on February 10, 2017. (CREDIT: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Every five years — give or take — the United States Congress passes a massive piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill, which covers everything from nutrition programs to the kinds of subsidies that farmers can qualify for. This year’s proposed Farm Bill clocks in at just under 700 pages, and is expected to go to a vote Friday morning in the House floor.

For weeks, the parts of the Farm Bill that have been getting the most attention are the Republican-proposed work requirements for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

But the Farm Bill is more than just subsidies and SNAP requirements. This year, Republican lawmakers have quietly added a number of provisions that environmental and sustainable agriculture groups worry could seriously undercut conservation programs and lead to more pollution in waterways and on farms.

“Overall, we are very concerned about the implications that this bill would have for farmers and ranchers looking to adopt conservation practices and activities on their operations,” Alyssa Charney, senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told ThinkProgress.

Cuts to conservation programs

For agricultural sustainability advocates like Charney, one of the most worrying aspects of the House’s draft Farm Bill is the way that it treats two programs that deal with conservation on farmland.

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Under the Farm Bill’s conservation section, there are two programs that normally receive funding: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Equipment Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). One program, CSP, focuses on conservation of an entire farm operation, from cover crops to water management. The other, EQIP, Charney explains, is akin to a “band-aid,” used to help farmers pay for a single conservation program on a single part of their operation.

Under the House’s proposed Farm Bill, nearly $1 billion in funding would be cut from these programs — and most of that would come from cuts to CSP, which would essentially be eliminated and folded into EQIP. That’s worrying for farm conservation, Charney said, because it eliminates the largest agricultural conservation program in the country and replaces it with a program less focused on holistic conservation practices.

In order to enroll [in CSP], you’re enrolling your entire operation,” Charney said. “USDA is considering not just how you are addressing natural resources in one small spot of your operation, but how you’re dealing with your entire pasture or cropland.”

In other words, if CSP is cut, farmers will have less financial incentive to think about conservation on their operations holistically. Instead, projects will more likely be treated as a one-off under the EQIP program rather than fully integrating it into their operations in a way that promotes sustainability over the long run.

Changes to water pollution protections

The House version of the Farm Bill also includes an amendment, introduced by Representative Jim Banks (R-IN), that would permanently repeal the Clean Water Rule, which was proposed in 2015 by the Obama administration in an attempt to clarify the jurisdictional powers of the federal government under the Clean Water Act.

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The bill also includes another amendment, proposed by Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) , that would redefine “waters of the United States” — which are the waters that the federal government can regulate under the Clean Water Act — to only include bodies of water that are relatively permanent and that have a continuous surface connection to other bodies of water. This means that a number of seasonal streams and wetlands would not be protected under federal pollution laws.

The amendments would essentially achieve an outcome that the Trump administration and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt have been pursuing by repealing the Clean Water Rule and attempting to write a replacement rule that adheres to an opinion written in 2006 by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

In 2017, when a draft of the proposed Clean Water Rule rewrite leaked, Pat Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, told ThinkProgress that it would signal “the most dramatic reduction in federal protection for streams, wetlands, ponds, lakes, and other water bodies in the history of the Clean Water Act.”

Legal experts have suggested that Pruitt’s attempts to repeal the rule could run into legal trouble in court, since the EPA appears to have based its argument for repeal on economic analysis that completely ignores the benefits of the Clean Water Rule — something that critics could use to prove that the repeal is arbitrary and capricious, and therefore in violation of federal administrative law.

One way around that, of course, would be for Congress to repeal the law itself — something that Republican lawmakers are clearly trying to do with the Farm Bill.

A lax approach to pesticides

The House version of the Farm Bill also would usher in a major change to the way the EPA approves pesticides. Under the House version, the agency would no longer have to asses how a new pesticide would impact fish and wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. Effectively, the EPA would not have to look at the potential toxicity of a pesticide in rivers, lakes, wetlands, or prairies.

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“Without question, this will accelerate extinctions for some of our most vulnerable species,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s environmental health program, said in a statement.

The change is something that chemical companies — primarily Dow Chemical, which donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration — have pushed the administration to consider for the past year.

Senate reality check

Even if the House version of the Farm Bill passes on Friday — which isn’t a given, thanks primarily to serious resistance from Democrats and some moderate Republicans over the SNAP work requirements — the final version will likely undergo a number of changes on the Senate side.

Senators on the Agriculture Committee have said that they hope to have their version of the bill finalized by June, and observers expect the bill to be substantially more bipartisan than the House bill — reflective of the fact that the bill needs 60 votes, and therefore needs strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. That means that some of the House bill’s more controversial aspects — like cuts to conservation, or work requirements — might not be an issue on the Senate side.