Cattle, © USDA

On “Mutually Insured Destruction”

Cliff-diving cows, highly commoditized crops and wildlife woes

Even if you have been paying attention to the Farm Bill (a tremendously important piece of legislation with huge implications for wildlife and habitat), you’ve probably lost track of the amount of times a farm bill is supposed to have been passed over the last year. You are also probably tired of hearing about the host of moans, groans, riders, additions and subtractions that are tied to it. The ever-sensationalized “dairy cliff” anyone? What, are cows all across the country going to start pulling a “Thelma and Louise” if the folks on the Hill can’t get it together? That’s not likely. But, some aspects of the Farm Bill (or lack thereof) are having a tremendous impact on wildlife and habitat, and should be getting a bigger share of all of that media (and congressional!) attention.

Agricultural buffer, © NRCS

By creating buffers with native grasses and trees, farmers can help protect the local ecosystem from agricultural impacts.

Following the bill for the past several months has indeed been exhausting, and the latest iteration due to hit the floor next week is still lacking when it comes to acknowledging – and doing something about – the wide-reaching effects that our system of farm subsidies has. In particular, the subsidizing of crop insurance, once a relatively small part of the portfolio of assistance to producers, is becoming more dominant as other types, like direct payments, are on the wane. And unfortunately, an oversight in the drafting of the farm bill means that producers can receive crop insurance subsidies without adhering to the sensible environmental restrictions that are in place for the rest of the subsidy programs.  As a result, crop insurance subsidies encourage both family farms and large, corporate agribusiness to engage in ecologically unsound practices like extreme monocrop planting (maximizing the payout by planting only those crops that have the highest insurance rates), plowing marginal soils and wetland draining – all activities that ultimately lead to wetland and habitat destruction and reduced population numbers for some sensitive species of wildlife.

Defenders’ recently-released report “Mutually Insured Destruction: How Unchecked Crop Insurance Subsidies Harm the Environment” lays out the true cost of crop insurance subsidies. The report explains why crop insurance subsidies are different from other major farm subsidy programs, cites specifically documented cases of environmental impact from these subsidies and provides solutions that would be beneficial to all parties involved, including wildlife.

Green-winged teal, © USFWS

A mated pair of green-winged teal, one of the many migratory birds impacted by wetlands loss.

Traditionally, farming subsidies have been tied to specific preventative or mitigative measures to help reduce impacts on natural resources. “For more than 30 years, planting limitations aimed at protecting fragile resources have been a condition for producer participation in the major subsidy programs. Since 1985, farmers have been required to adopt modest environmental safeguards to get direct payments and other traditional subsidy funding. To receive subsidies under these programs, farmers have to take actions to protect wetlands. If their land contains highly erosive soils—a criterion more than 140 million acres of croplands meet—farmers have to implement a plan to prevent erosion.”

However, crop insurance subsidies lack any of these kinds of basic environmental safeguards. Quite the opposite, they discourage acceptance of direct payment checks and instead promote maximized yield of single crops and plowing of marginally-productive soil to receive a higher kickback.

The resulting ecological impacts are pervasive and growing more daunting with each acre of corn planted. These unchecked subsidy allowances are causing grasslands destruction, dramatic wetlands loss, declining duck populations, soil erosion (which also chokes vital waterways, increasing water treatment costs, imperiling water-dependent wildlife, and causes algae blooms and dead zones), and increased usage of harmful pesticides.

So what should we be doing instead? Here are four steps that you can read more about in “Mutually Insured Destruction…”:

Soil sample, ©  Lynda Richardson/NRCS

An NRCS employee takes a soil sample on a farm that has incorporated many conservation practices to protect and enhance natural resources (like soil).

  1. Keep conservation compliance in the crop insurance program. We’re not talking about getting rid of crop insurance subsidies; we’re talking about not getting rid of conservation measures.
  2. Ask farmers to pay a fairer share of their crop insurance premium subsidies. Let’s not incentivize planting in ecologically sensitive areas, and make sure the right amounts of money go to the people who need it most.
  3. Reward farmers who adopt conservation practices. Why not turn the dial on those incentives to begin with – make conservation something that is rewarding in more ways than one.
  4. Lower the profit guarantee for insurance companies. Insurance companies lose money on payouts for the encouraged farming on acres likely to have crop loss. U.S. tax payers then have to pick up the slack when insurance company profits fall. Instead, higher premiums should be placed on “risky” lands.

Crop insurance without conservation compliance is mutually insured destruction of our soil, wetlands, grasslands and wildlife. The solutions are here – perhaps we can send the cows to deliver the message to Congress; they seem to have some bargaining power.

Courtney Sexton is a Communications Associate at Defenders of Wildlife.

3 Responses to “On “Mutually Insured Destruction””

  1. Nancy Wells

    I applaud your perseverance and tireless efforts to “right” so many wrongs!! BLESSINGS UPON YOU ALL!!!

  2. Savta

    Thank you for the research and documentation and stating it clearly; it isn’t easy to keep up with all the changes in the game plan. As consumers if we let the farmers know we want them to make a decent living but not by jeopardizing the environment or future generations, I think that most will want to do right by their children and grandchildren.

  3. Miranda

    thank Goodness for Defenders! Unfortunately mankind needs a 24/7 watchdog, just cannot be trusted to do the right thing when left unsupervised.

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