What would it take to make the 2018 federal Farm Bill the best ever for public health and the environment?
It’s clear that doing more of the same is not the answer. Despite spending more than $40 billion in taxpayer money over the last two decades, pollution in farm runoff remains one of the primary threats to the nation’s drinking water.
Just last week, scientists reported that the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily caused by fertilizer pollution, will be the third largest on record. And experts are predicting that fertilizer and manure pollution will once again turn Lake Erie green with algae this summer.
The Department of Agriculture’s voluntary conservation programs can reward farmers when they take steps to protect our drinking water from farm pollution. But EWG’s extensive analysis of USDA conservation spending found that the federal government isn’t doing enough to ensure that participating farmers are adopting “the right practices in the right places” for clean water.
On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on the future of these conservation programs. If we want to make the 2018 Farm Bill the greenest ever, here are six steps Congress should take:
- Provide sufficient funding to get the job done – and ensure that conservation programs aren’t cut in between farm bills.
- Ensure that environmental practices benefit the environment, not just farmers. As EWG’s groundbreaking analysis revealed, funds are frequently used for on-farm infrastructure improvement projects and practices that may primarily benefit farmers, not American taxpayers.
- Make sure that practices produce long-term environmental benefits. In particular, legislators should reform the Conservation Reserve Program to focus on long-term and permanent easements for environmentally sensitive lands, and should encourage farmers to transition organic farming, rotational grazing, and other types of farming that protect drinking water.
- Ensure that farmers are installing the right practices in the right places to protect drinking water and meet other urgent public health challenges. Our analysis found the USDA’s cafeteria-style system results in funds being siphoned away from practices that protect our drinking water.
- Do more to encourage groups of farmers to work together through cooperative conservation projects. In particular, legislators should expand and improve the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
- Ensure that all farmers who receive farm subsidies are taking steps to protect our drinking water from farm pollution – regardless of where they farm or what they grow. It’s been 30 years since Congress required some farmers to fight soil erosion in exchange for farm subsidies, so it’s long past time to ask all farmers to tackle the threats to our drinking water in exchange for a taxpayer-financed safety net.
While many farmers are taking steps to protect drinking water, farmers are largely exempt from our clean water laws, so the 2018 Farm Bill may be our best chance to address America’s big drinking water challenges.
Will the next farm bill be the greenest ever? Or will Lake Erie and thousands of other lakes continue to turn green from toxic algae every summer, instead?