Farm Bill 2018: Down Payment on an Effective Conservation Title

by Laurie Ristino

January 17, 2018

This blog post is the first in a forthcoming series on the 2018 Farm Bill.

As Congress begins the complex task of crafting the next Farm Bill, much is at stake – from conservation to "food stamps" to rural economies. This blog post is the first in a series addressing important policy considerations with an eye toward making the Farm Bill more effective, rather than backsliding on these and other important issues.

President Obama once referred to the current (2014) Farm Bill as a "Swiss Army knife" because of the many areas of American life that it touches. Another way to think of the omnibus legislation, passed roughly every four to five years, is as a food security bill.

Food security is a helpful framework to foster improved policy coherence in the next Farm Bill across a breadth of policy areas. A food-secure Farm Bill is one that provides for effective conservation on agricultural working lands, strong rural economies, and healthy food access for all Americans. In order to attain food security, the various titles of the Farm Bill need to work together, but in reality, fundamental inconsistencies exist among the legislation's titles.

For example, the Farm Bill's crop insurance "safety net" title, as implemented, rewards poor stewardship while the law's conservation title tries to address environmental harms caused by that agricultural production. The conservation title does this by authorizing and funding voluntary programs that provide billions of dollars to farmers to install conservation practices with the goals of improving environmental outcomes on agricultural land and reducing water pollution, soil erosion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to being undermined by crop insurance policy, we don't have a comprehensive understanding of how well the conservation title's best practices work. In fact, soil erosion, water pollution, and other problems persist.

Congress needs to make critical improvements in the 2018 version of the Farm Bill if it is to achieve a more food-secure America and a better value for taxpayers. It can begin with a down payment on a more effective conservation title embodied in a recently introduced bill, the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act.

The thrust of the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act is simple: to authorize and fund the measurement, evaluation, and reporting of conservation program outcomes. This baseline data is necessary for the government to assess how well conservation practices work and under what circumstances, a prerequisite to improving the effectiveness of conservation programs. In the past, conservation practice data and research has been stymied by privacy concerns voiced by industry groups, leading to privacy requirements that far exceed those applied to most Americans. The Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act addresses this concern by providing reasonable privacy safeguards in addition to a robust mechanism for bona fide public research. 

Incorporating the policies set forth in the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act into the next Farm Bill is a foundational step to a truly effective conservation title, one that is better designed to address agricultural pollution, conserve our precious natural resources to ensure future production, and provide a better value for the public's investment.

Adequate funding for measuring conservation practice effectiveness has been a major barrier to adaptive management on these measures. When I was the national biologist for Farm Service Agency, I built monitoring and adaptive management requirements into the SAFE practice that I instituted. I received considerable feedback that states lack funds and staff to evaluate SAFE and other CRP practices.
— Sally Benjamin
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Also from Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is Principal and Founder of Strategies for a Sustainable Future. She is a legal and policy expert on food security, the farm bill conservation title, ecosystem services and private lands conservation.

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