New Farm Bill Threatens Agricultural Sustainability
by Mark Boyd, 4/2/2014
As global warming continues to threaten agricultural yields and food security, Congress is missing an opportunity to use agricultural subsidies as investments in improving sustainability. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 was the hottest year ever in the USA since record keeping began in 1895, surpassing the previous high by a full degree Fahrenheit.
Rising temperatures present numerous challenges for agriculture: drought, rising levels of carbon dioxide and increased weed control costs, and even more frequent occurences of wildfires. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts these conditions are only likely to worsen, as temperatures in the “bread basket” interior of the U.S. are expected to rise by two-three degrees Celsius over the next 40 years.
In order to counteract the harmful effects of ongoing climate change, it is imperative that farmers immediately start adopting more sustainable techniques. Given the public importance of food security, governments should provide targeted subsidies to support farmers and encourage sustainability adaptation.
Europe has already taken this approach with its Common Agricultural Policy, making direct payments to farmers conditional on several “greening” targets. These targets include: to grow at least three different crops, to promote biodiversity, to leave at least 7 percent of their land fallow, to encourage wildlife, and to maintain pasture land permanently rather than ploughing it up.
U.S. agricultural policy already includes significant payouts to farmers, with about $14 billion in crop insurance payouts and subsidies in 2012. But very few of these payments are conditional on improving agricultural sustainability.
One of the few U.S. agricultural programs that does address the problem is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which like the European “greening” program pays farmers to change their practices. But the size of this program is on the decline at a time when it is needed most. While the 2008 Farm Bill authorized 12.8 million acres of farmland to be enrolled in the program each year, the 2014 Farm Bill sets a maximum of 10 million acres for new enrollments in CSP per year.
According to Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, this reduction in coverage fails to meet farmer interest in the program: "Every time CSP comes open for enrollment, there are two times as many acres trying to get into the program as there are acres available."
With climate change threatening to get even worse, it is time to ramp up efforts to improve agricultural sustainability, not diminish them. To avoid catastrophic damage to national food security, Congress must act now to make more agricultural subsidies conditional on sustainability targets and to properly fund programs like CSP that promote sustainability directly. For the sake of both current and future generations, investments in agricultural sustainability cannot wait.