Needed Farm Bill Reforms Take Shape

Every five years or so Congress revisits our nation’s food and agriculture policies and right now its Farm Bill season again.  The Farm Bill is sweeping legislation that touches on everything from nutrition programs to energy development, to environmental conservation programs.   Last week, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced  a new piece of legislation that proposes several important upgrades to those programs aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of farming.  His bill, the Balancing Food, Farm and the Environment Act of 2013, includes many intelligently designed provisions that would improve the health of the food we eat and the water we drink, while preserving our natural resources.

The current constellation of Farm Bill conservation programs plays a critical role in helping farmers and ranchers reduce pollution and conserve water and energy.  Yet as much as we need them, these programs don’t always get the job done and reforms could allow us to get even more benefits.  For example, in 2007, NRDC published an analysis of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the primary program intended to help farmers adopt new on-farm stewardship practices.  Just looking at pest control projects, we found a mixed bag:  While some states were using EQIP to reward least toxic pest control, others were ignoring it and in one or two instances the program was just used to buy more pesticides.   

Others have documented the need for EQIP and other Farm Bill programs to be more focused on actual outcomes, invest more in promoting environmentally friendly farming practices instead of buying expensive equipment and facilities, and to target funds to solve specific environmental problems instead of scattering the money to lots of small projects that don’t add up.

Enter the Balancing Act.  I haven’t analyzed everything in this 153 page bill, but I can tell you there are many urgently needed reforms here.  Some highlights:

Antibiotic use reduction.  It turns out that 80% of all antibiotics sold in America are intended for livestock use, primarily to hasten growth and help animals survive in crowded, stressful, unsanitary feedlot conditions.   This practice generates antibiotic resistant bacteria that can escape from feedlots and contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.  This is now a top campaign priority for NRDC.  Livestock producers can reduce use of these drugs by reducing crowding and stress and improving sanitation among other practices.  For the first time ever, the Balancing Act would allow federal dollars from the farm bill’s flagship conservation program, EQIP, to be used to help livestock operators to shift to better practices and reduce use of these critical medications.

Stronger language to focus on environmental performance and outcomes.    On pesticides, for example the Balancing Act directly states that the goal is to help farmers reduce the amount and toxicity of pesticide use, whereas the current farm bill vaguely authorizes more “beneficial, cost effective…pest management.” 

More dollars and program eligibility for transitioning to organic farming.  The Balancing Act authorizes both EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program to pay for organic practices and transition, and increases dollars available for such projects.

Higher payments for environmentally friendly farming practices, like fertilizer management and integrated pest control.  Again, this approach helps to actually improve farming practices.

Regional targeting.   The Act includes a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program that allows any of the other conservation programs to be used to solve regional problems by fostering collaboration among a group of growers and other stakeholders.  While the current farm bill has a similar version of this provision, the Balancing Act expands it and requires that at least 8% of current program resources are used in this way.   That’s a much better way to spend tax payer dollars. 

Climate friendly practices.  The Balancing Act allows conservation payments for on-farm climate change mitigation and adaptation an eligible activity.

A complete summary of the Balancing Act are can be found here.  As Congress continues to shape the next Farm Bill, I hope it will have the wisdom to incorporate conservation program upgrades into any final bill.


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