EWG report: Voluntary farm conservation ‘insufficient,’ mandatory compliance needed
The Environmental Working Group today released a county-by-county online database that details how the Agriculture Department has spent millions of dollars on several voluntary conservation programs, with an analysis maintaining that the spending has not solved farm-related environmental problems and that the government should have stricter conservation compliance for farmers getting farm subsidies.
“A stronger conservation compliance provision should be the top priority for Congress as lawmakers draft the new farm bill,” the report says.
The report appears to be a counter to Agriculture Department statements about the success of voluntary conservation programs, including those that were cited at a recent House Agriculture subcommittee hearing.
The database includes county-by-county data — though not farm-by-farm as EWG reported on crop production subsidies — for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP but not for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which EWG said it was unable to obtain.
“By every measure, farming’s threats to public health and the environment are mounting,” the group said. “EWG has constructed the Conservation Database, the first tool of its kind, to help devise badly needed course corrections to ensure that federal conservation programs fulfill their promises.”
The report says taxpayers have spent $29.8 billion on USDA conservation efforts over the past decade, but “the landscape is still plagued by contaminated drinking water, toxic algal blooms, microbes resistant to antibiotics and rural communities blighted by millions of animals trapped in factory farms.”
Federal voluntary conservation programs “can play an important role, but they aren’t leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment,” EWG said. “It’s not fair to ask taxpayers to pay for everything farmers should be doing anyway to be good neighbors to those across the road, downstream or down wind.”
The report maintains that conservation compliance, enacted in 1985 for farmers participating in farm programs “required farmers to take simple steps to protect soil and wetlands in exchange for payments from farm subsidy, conservation and other USDA programs. It sparked dramatic progress in reducing soil erosion on the most vulnerable cropland and in saving wetlands.”
The next farm bill, the report says, should have stricter conservation compliance to:
▪ “Ensure that drinking water is clean, safe and abundant by keeping fertilizers, manure, pesticides and mud out of source water, and by curbing unsustainable use of water for crop irrigation;
▪ Clean up toxic lakes and polluted streams that are too dangerous or too repellent for people to swim in, float downstream or catch fish;
▪ And reduce the massive doses of pesticides sprayed on farm fields and crops that end up in food, water and air.”
The voluntary conservation programs, the report says, should be focused on fewer practices that are the most effective in fixing the most important problems.
“Since 1997, the EQIP program has let farmers choose among 350 individual practices,” the report says. “Since 2010, the CSP has allowed farmers to pick any of 200 individual enhancements. It’s far too easy to implement these programs cafeteria-style, letting farmers pick the measures they like best, with too little regard for which remedies would do the most good.”
“A no- or low-cost revolving loan fund would be a far better way to subsidize capital-intensive projects, such as building structures and buying expensive equipment,” the report says.
“Such projects account for 61 percent of EQIP spending. Moving those projects to a loan fund would free up a portion of the $455 million EQIP spent in 2015 on such practices. That money could be used to encourage farmers to improve the management of their operations, enhancing protection of public health and the environment.”
The report also noted that between 2007 and 2014, landowners chose to take 15.8 million acres out of CRP as crop prices boomed.
“That added up to at least $8.9 billion in rental payments that created no lasting change,” the report said. “Congress should ramp up funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and authorize a suite of more flexible easements designed to protect more types of sensitive land.”
EWG also complained that the information was too difficult to obtain, with its staff filing 28 separate Freedom of Information Act requests.
EWG said major data gaps remain, including:
▪ “No information on what farmers are doing to earn the $968 million in CSP payments laid out between 2011 and 2014 for continuing to engage in practices that were already in place when they signed up for the program;
▪ No information on expired CRP contracts;
▪ No information about where the conservation practices subsidized by taxpayers are supposed to be implemented;
▪ And no information about the number of confined animal operations receiving payments from conservation programs.”
–The Hagstrom Report