April 27, 2012
The fast-moving legislators have already entered the stage and have been acting against type by drastically speeding up the normally glacial process of creating a new farm bill. The Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday finished marking up a version of the bill that will now be sent to the full Senate.
You might be tempted to rejoice that legislators somehow have a fire lit under them, but this would be the be-careful-what-you-wish-for portion of our presentation. The current version of the bill has an important gap that sustainable agriculture advocates want to fill—this version would drop certain conservation requirements that have, in past years, been tied to federal subsidies.
Those requirements would be lost because some federal farm subsidies are expected to be cut in this farm bill, and their attached conservation requirements would die with them. As a result, many sustainable agriculture groups want to tie so-called conservation compliance to crop insurance programs instead. I joined that chorus in a recent blog, pointing out that the natural resources (especially soil) that we save today are a vital component of our future food security and the public’s health. Let’s think of conservation requirements as soil insurance, biodiversity insurance, etc.
The farm bill version that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday does not attach compliance to crop insurance, as no committee members offered such an amendment. However, with farm bill battles now shifting to the full Senate, there is still hope that an amendment could attach conservation compliance to crop insurance.
It is not shocking that 31 agribusiness trade groups and insurers came out against the idea of linking conservation compliance and crop insurance subsidies. However, the reasons they gave in a letter to Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) last week seemed particularly feeble, even to the uninitiated (namely, me). They were sort of the rhetorical equivalent of being pelted with Styrofoam peanuts (“Is that all you got?”).
For example, the idea’s opponents have claimed (falsely) that linking compliance with crop insurance would threaten farmers’ ability to get crop insurance, which would in turn threaten their financing. They’ve put forward another red herring by saying that an extreme weather event could cause farmers to be out of compliance and therefore lose their financing. The truth is, the conservation compliance rules include exemptions for weather-related disasters. And so on …
If you want to delve more deeply into this issue, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has an excellent fact sheet on it. And, if you want to stay updated on what’s happening with the farm bill, you can take your surfboard here, here or here.