March 28, 2012
It’s a slogan you might have seen on a bumper sticker somewhere. Substitute “soil” for “farms” and you have a sentiment that’s equally apt. Maintaining our future food security and our health requires us to preserve the quantity and quality of a vital natural resource—the topsoil that we need to grow healthy food.
This year, federal policies that ensure the protection of this natural resource are under threat, as the farm bill comes up for debate again. I will not make you descend into the dreaded Policy Wonk Zone in order to understand this threat. I have done the descending for you, and now will try to translate what I’ve found into plain English. Here goes nothing …
There is talk that the next farm bill will eliminate the subsidies that the feds pay to farmers who grow (or have historically grown) certain crops and for the upkeep of prices for those crops. While those subsidies are controversial for unrelated reasons, they do have “conservation compliance” requirements that go along with them. In other words, there are strings attached to the money, and strings that help preserve resources that ultimately belong to all of us.
Groups such as the American Farmland Trust and the National Farmers Union support the idea of strengthening the conservation compliance system. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains the value of conservation compliance thusly:
“Conservation compliance is a means for ensuring that where public money is invested, basic levels of protections for soil, water, and wetlands protects public interest.”
Without conservation compliance standards in place, some farmers may abandon resource-conserving farming methods, if the economic incentives to do so overwhelm other considerations.
What’s the solution? One proposal is that conservation compliance standards should also be applied to crop insurance programs, which would capture about 40% of the farms and half the acreage that would otherwise automatically drop out of conservation compliance requirements if subsidy programs were eliminated, as is now being proposed.
The USDA’s conservation programs for “working lands” (i.e., used for food production rather than paying farmers to take land out of production) are another important avenue for linking food production to conservation. These voluntary programs, which already serve thousands of farmers, could encourage conservation on some of the farms that would not fall under the proposed linkage of conservation compliance with crop insurance.
These programs help pay for technical assistance and eco-friendly farm practices, but many of the farmers who apply are turned away for lack of federal funds. The federal government could appropriate more funds for these programs and boost the amount of crop acreage they support.
The return on these investments would not be rapid, but it would be profound and enduring.