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AgMag BLOG

Feeding your mind, saving the planet >>

Our Soil and Water Needs a Safety Net Too

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

For just a little while, it looked like a great day for Iowa agriculture and the environment. On Aug. 30, delegates to the Iowa Farm Bureau annual policy conference in Des Moines passed a historic proposal to tie their heavily taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance to good conservation practices. It came on the heels of an encouraging vote last year in favor of abandoning direct payments — farm subsidies that get paid out regardless of need, income or crop price.

The Iowa Farm Bureau is taking small steps toward a new and long overdue deal with taxpayers, a deal that would put conservation back at the center of agriculture policy — where it belongs. When taxpayers shell out to create a farm safety net, farmers should promise in return to do their bit to protect Iowa’s soil.

And what a safety net it is! In 2010 U.S. taxpayers spent $341 million in Iowa to subsidize the premiums farmers pay for crop insurance. That was just shy of the $407 million taxpayers sent out in the increasingly discredited direct payments. The traditional insurance program that protected farmers against losses in yield is now mutating into a program that insures farmers’ income.

Any other Iowa business would be met with guffaws if it asked taxpayers to insure its income year after year, but not the farm subsidy lobby. Its solution to every “problem” is another subsidy.

But it turned out that attaching a conservation string, more accurately, a thread, to such a generous benefit was too much for a majority of the Iowa Farm Bureau delegates. It took barely 12 hours for the Farm Bureau to reverse itself. The next morning, the delegates dismissed any notion of requiring environmentally friendly practices in exchange for taxpayer subsidies for farmers’ insurance.

Craig Lang, the Iowa Farm Bureau president, reportedly fought hard to keep the delegates from reversing course, and we applaud his leadership. A majority of Iowa farmers would likely agree with him. According to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, 81 percent of farmers responding agree that farmers should be required to control soil erosion in return for farm program benefits; 70 percent think farmers should also be required to control nutrient runoff into ditches, streams and other waterways.

Direct payments are in the budgetary cross hairs, finally. The newly minted Super Congress tasked with drastically reducing federal spending will be reckoning which government programs serve the greatest public good and which benefit just a few. The budget mavens should take a hard look at what’s happening to crop insurance, and what it’s costing.

At Environmental Working Group, we agreed with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board when it wrote: “If American taxpayers are going to subsidize farmers, the least they should expect in return is that farmers will be required to practice sensible land use so waters are not fouled and soil is preserved for future generations.”

Farmers need a safety net, but so do our soil and water.

This op-ed originally ran in the Des Moines Register Opinion Section.