This Year's Farm Bill Has Huge Environmental Implications

by Laurie Ristino

July 23, 2018

Scott Pruitt's narcissistic reign as EPA Administrator consumed advocates' collective energies, and rightfully so. It was a drama that recently ended – not via Trump tweet, but by old-fashioned resignation. Alas, this victory's potential downside is that the new guy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, may be more effective at dismantling environmental protections than Pruitt was because Wheeler actually understands how bureaucracy works.

Then, of course, came the orchestrated events surrounding Justice Kennedy's retirement and President Trump's pick to fill the vacancy, thrusting Brett Kavanaugh to center stage. Environmental protection (among other issues) seems imperiled as the Court is poised to take a hard "right" turn if Kavanaugh is confirmed. 

But as we continue to keep a vigilant eye on EPA and the future trajectory of the Supreme Court, let's not forget weighty environmental legislation currently making its way through Congress: the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Yes, you read that correctly: The Farm Bill is environmental legislation. 

Knowledgeable observers have been surprised by how far the new Farm Bill has progressed this year. Conventional wisdom, based upon the last (2014) Farm Bill experience and the initial, spectacular failure of the House to pass its version of the bill this spring, seemed to point to a protracted legislative process. But, within a week of each other in late June, the House and Senate passed strikingly different versions of the legislation. 

The next step is the conference committee process, with which the House recently voted to proceed, where both chambers of Congress will try to reconcile policy differences. Given the gulf between the two bills, it's likely that key battles will be fought over important environmental policy matters. 

Here's what's at stake:

Although most Americans live in urban areas, the United States remains a rural nation – around 97 percent of our country is considered rural and contains less than 20 percent of the population. "Working lands," a term used by the USDA, include private forest land, cropland, pasture, and range land and make up the majority of this rural landscape. This pie chart based on USDA Economic Research Service data is illustrative.

Because of the immense amount of land mass devoted to these working landscapes, rural America is the linchpin of a sustainable America. Most of us do not fully appreciate this reality because we are an urban-centric nation. Not unrelatedly, our national policies have contributed in large part to the decline of rural America, favoring agricultural consolidation and urbanization in the name of progress.

Indeed, our neglect of rural economic and environmental health is significant for more reasons than the outcome of presidential elections. We need the ecosystem services that rural America provides for our collective survival. When these services are functioning well, they provide clean water, clean air, climate change mitigation, and wildlife habitat, as well as sustenance.  

Unfortunately, these systems are severely compromised. For example, most of our major waterways are crippled by nonpoint source pollution – mainly from agricultural run-off. In addition, water scarcity in the West is accelerating due to climate change and increased demand, the majority of which comes from agriculture. Over 4.6 tons of soil erode per acre annually from cropland despite a national policy of soil conservation. Forests are increasingly stressed by extreme weather and pathogens, contributing to the rise of catastrophic forest fires.

The Farm Bill is critical to our environment because it is our single largest conservation investment in rural America – both in terms of the conservation dollars it provides and baseline conservation it requires.

Broadly, the Senate version of the bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, is a far better deal for Americans than the House version, called the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. Here are some key differences in environmental and conservation policies between the House and the Senate that merit our attention during the conference process:

  • Conservation funding. The Farm Bill, under the conservation title, provides billions of dollars to farmers to improve environmental outcomes and address resource concerns on their land by implementing conservation practices. The House bill cuts billions in conservation spending over 10 years – in part by eliminating the largest conservation program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). 

    In contrast, the Senate bill preserves conservation funding levels. Although the Senate's version is far preferable, what's really needed is more conservation funding, not simply maintaining the status quo. Demand for conservation programs typically outstrips available funds and reflects persistent environmental harms on working lands. 
     
  • Amending environmental laws. The House is using the Farm Bill as a back door to amend several critical environmental laws that protect the environment and human health. For example, the House bill amends the Clean Water Act (CWA) by deeming in compliance pesticides released into waters of the United States as long as those substances have been registered under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). This amendment intentionally sweeps aside hard-won case law finding that the CWA does regulate such discharges. From a human health perspective, the proposal is troubling because of the potential harms that such discharges may cause, which FIFRA is ill-designed to address.

    The House bill also weakens wildlife protections by authorizing the EPA's registration of a pesticide without consulting with other agencies on the potential impacts to wildlife listed under the Endangered Species Act.

    Finally, the House bill takes the extraordinary step of revoking a federal regulation – the hotly contested Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. The rule was promulgated in 2015 by the Obama administration in an attempt to make sense of a Supreme Court decision clarifying the definition of waters of the United States, which sets the boundaries of Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Constricting its application undercuts our ability to clean up our waters.

    The Senate proposal plays none of these sneaky tricks to weaken our environmental laws.
     
  • Research. The House bill fails to robustly support public agriculture-related research, including plant breeding. The House version also fails to incorporate common-sense provisions to measure and evaluate the conservation outcomes of Farm Bill-funded conservation practices in order to improve those programs. Despite the public's enormous investment in agriculture, knowledge that could be gleaned from agricultural data and associated research is rapidly becoming the province of private corporations. The House bill does little to arrest the decline of publicly funded research and the privatization of information.

    In contrast, although not perfect, the Senate bill makes strides to support public agricultural research, plant breeding, and science-based approaches to the work of USDA.

Environmental advocates have a lot on their plate, what with Kavanaugh's upcoming confirmation battle and the transition at EPA, to say nothing of the Trump administration's ongoing assault on various environmental protections. But it'd be a mistake to overlook the environmental implications of the Farm Bill. If the House version makes it into law, it'll set back the environmental cause mightily.

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Also from Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is the inaugural director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School and an associate professor of law.

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