Breaking up the land

What Does a Farm Bill Mean for Wildlife?

Tim Male, Vice President, Conservation Science and Policy

Whooping crane and chick

Whooping crane and chick (Credit: Flickr/GillianChicago)

Since the mid-1980s, there has been a deal between taxpayers and farmers: in exchange for generous subsidies to help maintain farms, farmers with fragile soils and wetlands would agree to protect those areas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) credits the program with preventing billions of tons of topsoil erosion every year, and saving hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands. Hundreds of rare wildlife species, from endangered whooping cranes to Florida panthers, have benefited from the program. In many places in the Midwest, areas protected voluntarily by farmers in exchange for these subsidies are the only remaining habitat for wildlife amidst an otherwise endless sea of corn and wheat crops.

Now, this important program is at risk because some members of Congress believe these modest environmental commitments are too much to ask of farmers — even though they receive approximately $10 billion in exchange. The loss could happen through a political sleight of hand. Here’s how. Congress is poised to ditch a subsidy program called Direct Payments, which provides the lion’s share of farmer assistance. Conservation requirements are a part of that program’s language — part of the DNA of that program. In place of Direct Payments, Congress plans to increase funding for crop insurance — another subsidy program. Taxpayers already pay for 65 percent of insurance costs for farmers, and pay the companies to sell insurance to farmers as well. The new assistance will make insurance coverage even more comprehensive, but without any conservation language. The result is that farmers would keep getting generous assistance under a different name, but conservation measures would go away in the process.

However, there is still a chance to fix the situation. Congress has time to pass a multi-year Farm Bill before the holidays. The Senate has already passed their version of the bill, which thankfully includes language to protect conservation measures. The leaders of some of America’s biggest conservation groups — ranging from Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to Defenders of Wildlife and the League of Conservation Voters — are calling on the President, the House of Representatives and all of Congress to take action to save wildlife habitat by making conservation a requirement for all farm and insurance subsidies.

With the right version of the Farm Bill, we can accomplish some great things. With the wrong version, there is a lot that we stand to lose:

Both the Senate and the House have moved forward with 20 percent cuts in funding for wetland protection, habitat restoration and water quality projects in drafts of the Farm Bill so far. We cannot accept even greater cuts that would compromise our ability to save wildlife in some of America’s most important and vulnerable ecosystems.

Environmental Commitments
About 140 million acres of farmland — and 2 million acres of wetlands — currently have a voluntary plan in place that prevents soil erosion and protects wetlands. In exchange for the plan, the farmers get billions in subsidies. But under the proposal of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee, by switching out one crop subsidy program for another, taxpayer subsidies would continue to flow, but the conservation plans fo away — and so will all that habitat.

Protect Environmental Laws
Some Members of the House of Representatives want to strip away state laws that prevent invasive species from spreading, and laws that require humane standards for livestock, eliminate procedures meant to keep pesticides out of rivers and streams and open more national forests to bigger clear cuts. A good Farm Bill would leave out these harmful riders, as the Senate has done.

Less than one percent of America’s tallgrass prairies remain, and other kinds of prairie are falling fast to agricultural and other forms of development. Congress can slow down the loss of our remaining grasslands by denying federal subsidies to corporations and other farmers who would plow up virgin grasslands to grow a crop.

These changes have broad support among millions of conservations and are the right thing to do for the environment. Moreover, our demands for the Farm Bill would also result in legislation that is less expensive for taxpayers. A win-win if ever there was one.

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