On Thursday, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that, for the first time since 1994, the USDA — which employs more than 100,000 federal workers across the country — would be undergoing reorganization. The bulk of that reorganization would revolve around trade, creating a new undersecretary position aimed at opening up overseas markets to U.S. agricultural goods like corn and soy.
But the reorganization will also mean changes to the department’s conservation arm, as the plan includes doing away with the position of undersecretary for natural resources and environment. Instead, the Natural Resources and Conservation Service — the main conservation arm of the USDA — would fall under the purview of the undersecretary for farm services, who will also be in charge of things like crop insurance.
At first glance, the change seems troubling, given the Trump administration’s noted hostility towards environmental regulations and conservation. Perdue has also been loathe to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, calling it “a running joke among the public.”
But some conservation and environmental groups suggest that the move — if done well — could actually help bridge the gap between important conservation programs, run through the NRCS, and crop insurance, which farmers often depend on to help them get through difficult years or extreme weather.
Under the new reorganization, NRCS would be housed under the same umbrella as two other USDA agencies — the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency, both of which focus on helping farmers with on-the-ground production and risk management.
“There are definitely some opportunities that come with combining those three agencies — you do see a lot of the work that they are doing is complementary, and it would be great for those agencies to work seamlessly together,” Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress. “The most important thing is to have an undersecretary who can balance all three of those, so you are not pitting farm production against conservation.”
Conservation experts largely agreed that if NRCS programs — like planting cover crops to help ward off soil erosion, or taking highly-erodible land out of commission in order to preserve soil health — were linked with federal crop insurance, it could help give farmers more financial certainty when adopting conservation programs, which would be a net-benefit for agricultural conservation. Right now, crop insurance isn’t always friendly when it comes to working with conservation practices — sometimes, land will not qualify for crop insurance if certain practices are used.
“From our perspective we would love to see NRCS-defined practices further linked to the federal crop insurance and risk management. We want to see that conversation happen, so it could go that way,” Mike Lavender, Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program, told ThinkProgress. “On the other hand, it could go the other direction where NRCS is different from those other two programs and does not get the attention [it needs].”
According to Lavender, crop insurance covered some 340 million acres of U.S. farmland in recent fiscal years. The USDA provides crop insurance for over 100 different kinds of crops, but it also tends to reward farmers that take risker choices than farmers that make more sustainable choices — paying farmers for loss when they plant on fields not well-suited to agricultural production, for instance, rather than paying farmers for working to restore carbon in the soil.
“Crop insurance isn’t always friendly in allowing different practices to be implemented on a given farm if a farmer still wants to get their crop insurance policy,” Lavender said.
By combining the NRCS with crop insurance under one umbrella, there is some hope that the incoming undersecretary will take a more holistic approach to both crop insurance and conservation programs, finding ways for the two to better work together on U.S. farms.
But that, according to experts like Lavender and Eideberg, will ultimately depend on who the undersecretary is — that person could just as easily brush off NRCS for programs that incentivize production at any cost, regardless of its environmental impact.
“These are massive organizations and combining them is a challenge no matter what,” Lavender said. “Let’s see how it goes. The devil is going to be in the details.”