June 26, 2012

Farm Bill Considerations: The Case for Protecting Environmental Compliance Provisions

Sarita Wahba

Sarita Wahba

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

As the 2012 Farm Bill continues to be debated, and I continue to learn about the critical issues involved, I am reminded of a concept fundamental to survival: if there are no farms, there is no food. Due to the vast array of elements that can place farmers and crop production at risk, it is critical to support American farmers to ensure continued food production. However, it is not just the farmers that must be supported, but the land, and water as well.

For more than a decade “direct payments,” a program within the Farm Bill, required that farmers take part in conservation efforts in order to receive these funds. The direct payment program, which makes up a large portion of farm subsidies, was a social contract between American taxpayers and farmers whereby Americans supported the solvency of the farming industry in exchange for the assurance that farmers would take care of the land and resources upon which we all depend. Now, in the 2012 version of the Farm Bill, direct payments are on the chopping block, and that means that some farmers will have less economic incentive to maintain or institute new conservation efforts. As mentioned in our earlier blogpost, Farm Bill Considerations: The Case for Conservation, agricultural conservation efforts affect our water, land, and air, and thus ultimately affect human health.

How do direct payments affect environmental compliance?

In the farm bill, conservation efforts tied to direct payments are referred to as environmental compliance, and reflect standards of environmental protection that farmers must adhere to in order to receive direct payments. Environmental compliance consists of three primary programs: conservation compliance, sodbuster, and swampbuster. Together these programs are aimed at addressing the ills that result from farming on highly erodible land, and on certain wetlands, by providing financial incentives to farmers for not engaging in environmentally damaging practices. Direct payments are up for elimination in this year’s Farm Bill and, while this elimination marks an important change in the farm bill, it could also mean a reduction in conservation efforts, impacting 174 million acres of land, or about 44 percent of all cropland in the U.S., and ultimately greatly impacting the population’s health.

Why is this meaningful from a public health perspective?

From a public health standpoint, these conservation measures are necessary in order to protect from several adverse outcomes. Let’s go into some detail:

Food Security:

Soil erosion directly threatens food security. As more soil erodes, less land will be available for food production.  In tandem with the growing global population, this represents a diminished ability to feed the world. To get a feel for the depth of the problem, one estimate has shown that in the last 200 years, approximately one third of U.S. cropland has been abandoned due to soil erosion and related issues. Conservation efforts can utilize farming techniques that decrease soil erosion, thus enabling an improved capacity to produce food and prevent national food insecurity.

Exposure to Hazardous Substances and Disease Spread:

Many current farming practices cause soil erosion and degradation, which lead to a decreased ability for land to absorb contaminants. This is a tremendous public health risk, as harmful substances such as lead, nitrates from fertilizer, Listeria and E. coli from manure, pesticides, and other contaminants, can get into the human body through ingestion, skin contact, and breathing in these substances. Illnesses, such as some cancers, blue-baby syndrome, liver damage, neurological problems, and reproductive issues, as well as disease outbreak, are associated with this transfer of contaminants. Thus conservation efforts that keep soil healthy can also help keep the population healthy.

Extreme Weather Events:

Soil has the ability to mitigate climate change because it serves as a carbon sink that absorbs fossil fuel emissions. However, when soil has been degraded, its ability to sequester carbon is compromised.  Also, nitrogen fertilizers utilize a significant amount of energy in order to be produced. Preserving soil health and limiting the necessity for nitrogen fertilizer can moderate the adverse health effects of climate change and resulting extreme weather events. Specifically, these efforts can reduce food and water insecurity, disease spread, heat stress, respiratory issues, and others. One other protective mechanism of note is that preservation of wetlands. Wetlands can prevent flooding, which has been linked with death from drowning, communicable disease spread, water contamination, respiratory problems, and others.

A Glimmer of Hope

One potential avenue for conservation in the event of direct payment elimination is a measure that would ensure that government assistance for crop insurance is contingent upon environmental compliance requirements. As it currently stands, crop insurance is an important safety net for farmers because it protects them from losses from adverse events like extreme weather, insects, and disease. As of now, crop insurance is the only large Farm Bill program that does not have an environmental compliance element. In the past, purchasing farm insurance was contingent upon taking part in some environmental compliance efforts. However, in 1996, this requirement was eliminated because lawmakers felt it would incentivize more farmers to purchase crop insurance.  If Congress enacts rules that enable the return to the pre-1996 requirements, approximately 141 million acres of cropland (or 36 percent of that which is covered by direct payments) will be subject to conservation. Although this won’t make up for a loss of direct payments completely, it is an important step in the right direction.

Conservation programs are necessary in order to keep our cropland, wetlands, and public healthy.

For a more detailed description about why Congress should support environmental compliance as a requirement for purchasing crop insurance, check out CLF’s brief, Protecting Environmental Compliance Programs—A Public Health Priority.


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