Growing farm conservation backlog shows need for Congress to spend smarter

Despite billions of dollars in federal spending, the U.S. has a growing backlog of farmers seeking assistance for conservation efforts that can protect drinking water supplies. It’s time for Congress to spend smarter and ensure funding improves environmental protection.

The budget reconciliation bill that House and Senate Democrats are developing provides a once-in-a-generation chance to make farmland stewardship, not unlimited subsidies, a priority, to guarantee that environmental funding for farms achieves the desired benefits.

And there are crucial lessons from past legislative debates over farm conservation funding that suggest how lawmakers can reform spending to achieve pollution reductions.

When Congress debated the 2018 Farm Bill, we floated six ideas for how to make the legislation the best ever for public health and the environment. We noted at the time that spending more money the same way wouldn’t work: Despite an investment of more than $40 billion in the Department of Agriculture’s voluntary conservation programs, farm pollution remained one of the biggest threats to the nation’s drinking water supplies.

By every measure, the problems posed by farm pollution – like toxic algae blooms and low-oxygen dead zones – were getting worse, not better, as the nutrients and chemicals applied to farmland continued to wash into the nation’s rivers, lakes and bays.

But not much changed in – or has changed since – the 2018 Farm Bill. Although Congress made some important reforms, expected spending on USDA conservation programs did not increase enough. Farmers and ranchers offering to share the cost of conservation practices like buffer strips and cover crops continue to be turned away from the funding they need.

According to its own recent data, the USDA:

The unfunded annual backlog for EQIP, CSP and RCPP is more than $2 billion. It could cost an additional $2 billion to enroll the acres offered into CRP. Thousands of other farmers have simply stopped seeking funds after being turned away by the USDA again and again.

Why are so many farmers being turned away?

Farmers are being turned away because Congress did not provide enough funding in the last farm bill.

After rising steadily in the past, farm conservation spending has leveled off in recent years. By contrast, farm subsidies ballooned under President Donald Trump. Overall, total income support payments to farmers topped $46 billion in 2020.

Increasing conservation spending will reduce the backlog of farmers waiting for conservation assistance. And it will help protect our drinking water supplies, provide more habitat for wildlife, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lead to more carbon being stored in the ground and help our farms prepare to better withstand the effects of extreme weather caused by the climate crisis.

Spending more is just one part of the solution. We must also spend smarter.

As Congress works on the pending budget reconciliation bills and other legislation, lawmakers must ensure that environmental practices benefit the environment, not just farmers.

EWG’s extensive analysis of conservation spending shows the government isn’t doing enough to ensure that participating farmers adopt “the right practices in the right places” for clean water. Conservation funds are frequently used for non-farm infrastructure improvement projects and practices that mostly benefit farmers, not the American taxpayer. So far, the Biden administration has failed to make smarter spending of EQIP funds a priority.

A need to ensure environmental improvements

Lawmakers and policymakers must also make sure that farm practices produce long-term environmental benefits, guaranteeing that the money Congress provides achieves tangible results.

The USDA’s ongoing reform of CRP should focus on long-term and permanent easements for environmentally sensitive lands. It should also encourage farmers to transition to organic farming, rotational grazing and other types of farming that protect drinking water. On this issue, the Biden administration is making real progress.

Even if Congress does provide more funding for USDA conservation programs, it will not be enough to meet the pollution challenges posed by farming. To meet those challenges, lawmakers must ensure that all farmers who receive farm subsidies take steps to protect our drinking water from farm pollution – regardless of where they farm or what they grow.

It’s been 35 years since Congress required some farmers to fight soil erosion in exchange for farm subsidies, and the conservation backlog continues to grow. It’s past time for lawmakers to ask all farmers to tackle threats to our drinking water in exchange for a financial safety net that cost taxpayers more than $40 billion last year.

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