June 14, 2012

Farm Bill Considerations: The Case for Conservation

Sarita Wahba

Sarita Wahba

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

The Senate Agriculture Committee recently put forth their version of the Farm Bill, which included steep cuts to conservation funding. Conservation efforts protect natural resources as well as the public’s health. As the 2012 Farm Bill continues to be debated on the Senate floor, it is clear that there is a lot at stake, and it becomes difficult to ignore the inter-relationship of food, farming, and our environment as a whole.

Hello, everyone. I am Sarita Wahba, and I recently joined the team at Center for a Livable Future as a research assistant. With all of the action occurring on the Senate floor, it has taken no time at all to become completely immersed in the complexities and urgency of the Farm Bill.

In the past when I thought about the Farm Bill, it was in relationship to the quality of food that ended up on my plate. Now, however, I am learning that while “food” is one important aspect of the Farm Bill, tantamount are the conservation efforts that this legislation addresses and that have significant public health implications. This CLF brief, Working Lands Conservation Funding—A Public Health Priority, provides more insight into the importance of conservation funding.

As the population continues to increase, it is critical that land not be exploited, if food production is to be sustained. Likewise, it is imperative that large agricultural manufacturers conduct business in a way that is safe for the environment, farm workers, and consumers. If current farming practices are left as they are, we will be in trouble, as resources degrade, and as pollutants become more pervasive. However, maintaining adequate funding for the Farm Bill working lands conservation programs (such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program) is a step towards ensuring that the aforementioned priorities are met. These conservation programs provide financial and technical assistance to farmers who want to adopt conservations practices but might not otherwise be able to do so because of the prohibitive costs.

Conserving and Protecting Water

In discussing potential conservation efforts, it is important to look at the valuable resources that conservation will protect. Let’s take water for example, an essential compound that none of us can live without. It is expected that by 2013, at least 36 states will experience some water shortage. The fact that agriculture production is responsible for 80% of the water usage in the U.S., provides an easily recognizable venue for intervention. Droughts are a threat to food security, and thus a major public health issue. A second water-related issue is that contaminants from agriculture production are polluting our rivers, lakes, and groundwater. This pollution has led to elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water, which has been associated with cancer and seafood poisoning in humans. And if those problems aren’t bad enough, even less charming is the issue of manure from factory farms getting into our water.  Therefore, actions must be taken to support the conservation practices that keep our water clean and in abundance.

Protecting Air Quality

Air, another invaluable resource must also be protected. Unfortunately, much of food production involves processes that contribute to air pollution. For example, factory farms have been found to release pollutants that cause headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, and mood disorders.  Additionally, greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels used in the agricultural production contribute to climate change, and have the potential to adversely impact global health.

Protecting Land Quality

Next is the issue of land quality. As soil quality degrades, there will be less land available to grow food. One estimate has shown that in the past 200 years, the U.S. has lost 30% of its farmland. In an effort to replenish nutrients, farmers often use fertilizers. However, as mentioned above this can get into the water and cause major health issues.  Therefore, promoting conservation practices can replace the use of fertilizers, have positive health implications, and can slow the spread of food insecurity.

Human Health

And of course, there are our own bodies to consider. Pesticide exposure has been responsible for between 10,000 and 20,000 pesticide poisonings per year amongst agriculture workers. These poisonings have been shown to be associated with numerous types of cancer, reproductive problems, and neurological issues. Of additional concern is that children are especially susceptible to adverse health effects from pesticides found on produce, and from runoff into ground and surface water. Lastly, the addition of antibiotics to livestock feed has been associated with the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which has been pervasive around the world and can make formerly treatable infections potentially fatal.

Taken together, conservation funding can support a multitude of sustainable practices that limit the adverse effects agricultural manufacturing has on humans and the environment. However, care must be taken. One potentially negative portion of conservation funding is part of the otherwise beneficial, Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Sixty percent of this funding is allotted to livestock production. This allocation can foster the growth of industrial food animal production facilities, thus potentially causing additional exploitation of resources.  This aside, support of conservation funding in the 2012 Farm Bill will have major public health implications for current and future generations.

Check out CLF’s policy brief, Working Lands Conservation Funding—A Public Health Priority, which I mentioned earlier, for more details on why this funding must be maintained if we are to protect the public’s health. CLF also acted as a co-signor on the “Hold the Line on Conservation Cuts” letter that was sent to Congress on Monday, June 11. (See the NSAC blogpost about that letter.)


  1. Pingback: Get by with a little health from my friends… | Center for a Livable Future

  2. Pingback: Farm Bill Considerations: The Case for Protecting Environmental Compliance Provisions | Center for a Livable Future

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *