WASHINGTON – Two of the Department of Agriculture’s principal conservation programs paid out almost $7.4 billion to farmers between 2017 and 2020, but only a small part went to practices the USDA itself has designated “climate-smart,” a groundbreaking new Environmental Working Group investigation has found.
EWG’s analysis belies claims in recent years by USDA leadership that tackling the climate crisis is an agency priority. Instead it shows that climate-focused agriculture conservation programs and practices are not well-funded. At least 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – and likely much more when emissions from cropland development and on-farm energy use are considered.
“Agriculture is increasingly regarded as a vital part of any climate solution, and our investigation provides the first look ever into how much the USDA’s conservation programs are paying farmers to cut greenhouse gases,” said EWG Midwest Director Anne Schechinger, author of the analysis and a food and agricultural economist. “We found that even though the agency already knows the best ways for farms to help combat the climate crisis, it has not prioritized them.”
These findings come from EWG’s Conservation Database, which compiles 2017–2020 payment data for five of the USDA’s conservation programs. It replaces the organization’s prior Conservation Database, which had data on about $40 billion in conservation funding from 1995 to 2015.
EWG’s new analysis focuses on two of the USDA’s largest conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, and the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP. Both programs pay farmers to voluntarily implement one or more conservation practices, such as planting cover crops or establishing wildlife habitat.
In recent years, the USDA has designated some conservation activities “climate-smart.” Yet EWG’s examination of USDA data finds these practices received little funding.
Between 2017 and 2020, total EQIP payments to farmers exceeded $3.6 billion. But only about a quarter of the payments, or about $844 million, were for practices that lessen climate change by reducing emissions.
And only a miniscule fraction of total CSP payments went to climate-smart practices and enhancements – $11.4 million, or just 0.3 percent of the $3.7 billion spent.
Some of the practices that received the most funding exacerbate the climate crisis – for example, “waste storage facility,” which increases greenhouse gas emissions by concentrating animal manure, according to the USDA’s own calculations. Yet this was the fifth most-funded EQIP practice, with over $174.2 million in taxpayer funds helping build such facilities.
The investigation is the result of a year of convoluted interactions between EWG and the USDA through Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests and many emails. EWG repeatedly received incorrect or obviously incomplete data from the USDA FOIA office.
Ultimately, the USDA refused to give EWG data for EQIP and CSP practices for which there were five or fewer contracts funded in a county in a particular year. This data gap makes it impossible to form a complete picture of spending, but what’s missing only underscores the dearth of funding for and low adoption rate of the USDA’s climate-smart practices and enhancements.
For example, more than half of the CSP climate-smart practices and enhancements – 63 out of 114 total – were missing from the county-level data, meaning they were implemented on fewer than six properties in any county in any given year.
“Congress must reform these important conservation programs to make efforts to reduce agricultural emissions a top priority,” Schechinger said. “And until the USDA is more transparent, no one will be able to fully analyze how and where conservation spending is flowing to on-farm efforts that can help slow the climate catastrophe.”
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.