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Hit farm bill reset button to cut deficit, protect land

Monday, November 19, 2012

The following op-ed appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2012.

Democrats in Iowa tried hard to turn Congress’ failure to pass a federal farm bill into a political liability for their Republican opponents. It didn’t work.

Exit polls show that the real litmus test for voters in rural or urban counties was the economy or the federal deficit.

Crop insurance — projected to cost taxpayers $90 billion over the next 10 years — has quietly become the most expensive taxpayer subsidy of farm income. Even more than traditional farm subsidies, most crop insurance benefits flow to the most profitable operations working thousands of acres. These are farm businesses whose earnings, according to Bloomberg News, have soared eight times faster than non-farm wages since 2008.

Crop insurance companies that sell and service these policies are the other big winners. A recent analysis by Iowa State University economist Bruce Babcock found that for every taxpayer dollar that goes to a farmer, another dollar goes to a crop insurance company or agent.

Yet the Senate and House versions of the farm bill propose new programs that will, wholly at taxpayers’ expense, pick up the deductible on an already heavily subsidized crop insurance policy. To pay for them, they want to shift $35 billion, or 70 percent of the $50 billion in projected savings from ending the so-called direct payment farm subsidy, to fund the new subsidy programs. The new subsidies plus the current crop insurance program will cost taxpayers at least $125 billion over the next decade.

They will shell out far more if, as most climate scientists predict, unfriendly weather like the current drought becomes the new normal.

This cynical game of bait and switch means that congressional farm bill authors must cut conservation programs to hit deficit-reduction targets. Adding salt to the wound, the House agriculture committee has drafted a version that would gut the conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers that has protected soil and wetlands since 1985.

Meanwhile, out in farm country, we are losing the ground gained over two decades of progress in controlling soil erosion and polluted runoff from farm fields. Some 23 million acres of fragile grassland and wetlands have been plowed under. Drinking water is threatened by the failures of federal and state governments and farm organizations to address adequately agriculture’s profound effect on water quality.

This is no time to cut back on conservation.

President Barack Obama has said that his first order of business has to be tackling the deficit issues that are looming. The farm bill would be a good place to start.

The drought in Iowa and across the Corn Belt is going to teach us hard lessons about how far crop insurance has strayed from a fiscally responsible safety net.

Ending direct payments and smart reform of crop insurance would leave a fiscally responsible and effective safety net in place for farmers while saving enough money to fund conservation programs, food stamps and a host of critical programs that help Americans improve their diets. And these measures would do more for deficit reduction than the farm bill in front of Congress.

Congress and the Obama administration should hit the reset button on the farm bill.

Craig Cox of Ames has devoted his working career to conservation since joining the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1977 as a field biologist. He joined the Environmental Working Group in 1998 and now leads the organization’s research and advocacy work in agriculture, renewable energy and climate change and directs EWG’s Midwest office in Ames. Comments: craig@ewg.org