This week, as the farm bill reached the full U.S. Senate (read it online here), the Iowa Environmental Council continues to monitor how the bill will affect federal conservation programs which have a tremendous impact on Iowa’s landscape. As the Senate continues its work, here’s some of what we’re reading about how this bill is proceeding:
As we’ve been saying for months, this year’s farm bill debate is set against the background of recent high commodity prices–especially for corn–which are driving more land around the Midwest into agricultural production–including land unfit for intensive row-crop production.
June 6, the New York Times ran an informative piece connecting this trend to a top farm bill priority of the Council and other conservation groups–connecting federal crop insurance subsidies to to basic expectations for conservation practices.
The article discusses how the availability of subsidized crop insurance is making it easier for farmers to choose to plant crops on marginal land that may or may not produce good results.
Congress is working to reduce spending on farm programs this year, and those cuts are expected to dramatically increase the role of crop insurance subsidies as a part of the taxpayer funded safety net for farmers.
This change could have significant consequences for the environment. While many existing farm programs require farmers to implement certain conservation practices on vulnerable land, since 1996, the crop insurance subsidy has contained no such protections.
Many of America’s best known food system commentators expressed their alarm at the lack of conservation standards associated with the federal insurance subsidy in a June 4 letter to Congress:
“…the proposed $9 billion-a-year crop insurance program comes with minimal societal obligations. Growers, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premium subsidies should at least be required to take simple measures to protect wetlands, grassland and soil. Instead, the unlimited subsidies will encourage growers to plow up fragile areas and intensify fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of environmentally sensitive land, erasing decades of conservation gains.”
The version of the farm bill the Senate is currently debating emerged from the Senate Agriculture Committee without provisions reconnecting insurance subsidies to conservation expectations–except in a limited case. Under a so-called “sodbuster” provision adopted by the agriculture committee, taxpayer-supported subsidies would be reduced by half for native prairie or grasslands farmers put into production for the first time.
The Iowa Environmental Council and other conservation groups nationwide have called on the Senate to include an amendment to the current farm bill proposal that would strengthen conservation protections for wetlands and highly erodible land as well.
The Council has said previously that connecting crop insurance subsidies to conservation is an “idea with merit” that most Americans–and Iowa farmers–support.
Our position matches that of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition which explained in a recent fact sheet on the insurance subsidy – conservation connection that “with the receipt of subsidies comes a responsibility to protect resources for future generations; most farmers agree, yet are placed at a competitive disadvantage when poor stewards are allowed to cut corners and reap the same public benefits.”
That’s why we’re hopeful the Senate will incorporate these conservation protections as it continues its work. We will continue to monitor activity in Washington closely and alert our action alert volunteers of opportunities to contact Iowa’s Congressional delegation to provide feedback. You can receive our action alerts by signing up on our website.
An important note: The Council and other groups are calling for attaching conservation expectations to federal subsidies for crop insurance–which can pay up to 60% of a farmers’ premium. None of the restrictions discussed here would prevent farmers from purchasing crop insurance–which is a product sold by private insurance companies. Attaching conservation expectations to crop insurance is simply a way of ensuring the taxpayer does not help support environmentally harmful practices.