Even if the government miraculously opens for business tomorrow, several critically important USDA conservation and nutrition programs will be shuttered.
Why? Because the current farm bill expires at midnight and passing a new farm bill remains elusive.
That means that the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Healthy Forest Reserve Program will no longer be able to add new acres of land in order to restore wetlands, grasses and forest.
The timing could not be worse. For years now, areas that provide habitat for wildlife, hold back floodwaters and filter polluted runoff have been plowed under to grow crops at record rates, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. Between 2007 and 2011, farmers plowed up more than 23 million acres – an area the size of Indiana.
Moreover, when the farm bill expires other critical programs that promote healthy diets, support organic farmers, help new farmers and connect farmers with urban consumers will also be shuttered.
In other words, the farm programs that polls show ordinary Americans care most about – those that promote local, organic, and environmentally sustainable food – will grind to a halt, while unlimited farm subsidies continue to flow to the largest and most successful farm businesses.
No wonder Congress has historically low approval ratings.
It remains to be seen whether Congress will even be able to pass a new farm bill by the end of the year – which would hurtle federal farm policy back to a 1949 law.
Over the weekend, the House “married” a “farm-only” farm bill that increases unlimited farm subsidies to a “nutrition” bill that cuts food assistance by nearly $40 billion over the next ten years.
That sounds like a marriage made in hell, not heaven.
By approving a bill that would end hunger assistance for roughly 3 million Americans, the House made it less likely that Congress will complete work on a new farm bill by the end of the year.
With this Congress, failure is always an option.
That’s why it’s so important that any new extension of the farm bill not repeat the mistakes of the extension passed by Congress at the end of last year, which stranded important conservation, organic, healthy food and research programs.
In addition, a new extension must finally end direct payments, which are paid regardless of need or even whether a farmer harvests a crop. EWG research recently showed again that thousands of city slickers are collecting direct payments.
In addition, a new extension must also provide funding for critical conservation and nutrition programs that support local and organic farmers and reward good stewardship of our natural resources. Ending direct payments – and extending programs that support local and organic farmers and the environment – would produce significant savings.