Unfortunately, most members of Congress, including many influential members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees, don't understand the
devastating toll that six decades of Farm Bill subsidized factory farming methods has taken on the land--or the power of conservation programs to reverse
Adding insult to injury, those conservation programs that do exist rarely get the money they are promised when Farm Bills are passed. Legislators make a
big deal about how the Farm Bill protects the environment. But whenever budget appropriators need savings, conservation programs are the first on the
chopping block. There's a term for this: Changes in Mandatory Program Spending, or CHIMPS.
Over the last five years, Conservation budgets have been CHIMPed by more than $3 billion, with nearly $2 billion in cuts between 2011 and 2013 alone.
That's not because there's no demand for the programs. Three out of four applications are turned away for lack of funding.
Even common sense on-farm stewardship practices that were historically required of farm subsidy recipients are disappearing from the Farm Bill. Take
taxpayer funded crop insurance. Over the past five years, subsidized crop insurance has become farmers' preferred source of taxpayer assistance.
Crop insurance policies currently come with no land conservation requirements. Because of this, they are actually causing a massive amount of previously
protected land to be plowed up. Farmers anxious to cash in on record crop prices no longer have to worry about yields when taxpayer programs guarantee them
against losses. Across the Great Plains, corn and soybeans are being planted on millions of acres of erodible lands that were previously deemed marginal
and formerly protected through the Conservation Reserve Program. Scientists fear another Dust Bowl is in the making.
"Congress right now has the ability and responsibility to transform the Conservation Title for the next 10 years," says Oregon Representative Earl
Blumenauer. In May, Blumenauer introduced HR 1890, the "Balancing Food, Farms and Environment Act of 2013." The bill is just one of many intended to
strengthen conservation efforts into the House and Senate Farm Bills, which should come to floor votes this summer. A Coburn-Durban amendment is aimed at
imposing income thresholds on crop insurance for the largest farmers. HR 1890 would provide more money for to protect land in permanent easements and
reward farmers for carbon sequestration. Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced an amendment to expand supports to organic farmers.
In a political landscape hostile to environmental protection, agricultural lobbies have for decades found ways to pilfer conservation budgets to help boost
crop and livestock production. Over the last ten years alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, two billion dollars in the Environmental
Quality Incentives Program have been diverted to pay for the hard costs of establishing waste containment structures for concentrated animal feeding
operations, laying pipe for irrigation in arid regions, and draining wetlands.
Like the Olympic Games, the renewal of the Farm Bill only comes around every four to five years. It offers the opportunity for Americans to invest in the
long-term health of farmlands and the countryside. But time may be running out.
Could this year be a turning point for Farm Bill conservation reforms, like the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills, which established far-reaching efforts to protect
grasslands and wetlands across the heartland?