Conservation in the United States

The United States

What Do Conservation Data Tell Us?

EWG's Conservation Database reveals, county-by-county, the conservation practices that farmers have implemented with taxpayer funds. These resources are channeled through the following four critical conservation initiatives enacted by Congress and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)

Seven years in the making, EWG's Conservation Database allows American taxpayers, and their elected representatives and policymakers to see, for the first time, exactly where billions of dollars in conservation funding have gone.

By every measure, farming's threats to public health and the environment are mounting. EWG has constructed the Conservation Database, the first tool of its kind, to help devise badly needed course corrections to ensure that federal conservation programs fulfill their promises.

Voluntary conservation programs insufficient

Although taxpayers have spent $29.8 billion on USDA conservation efforts over the past decade, the landscape is still plagued by contaminated drinking water, toxic algal blooms, microbes resistant to antibiotics and rural communities blighted by millions of animals trapped in factory farms.

Federal farm bill conservation programs, which are voluntary, can play an important role, but they aren't leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. It's not fair to ask taxpayers to pay for everything farmers should be doing anyway to be good neighbors to those across the road, downstream or down wind.

Farmers and landowners should be required to undertake basic measures to protect public health and the environment. The conservation compliance provision in the farm bill is the single best opportunity to mandate nationwide agricultural conservation practices.

Need for stronger conservation compliance

It's more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for generous farm and insurance subsidies - a total of $14 billion in 2014 alone and $265 billion since 1995. Most of those dollars have gone to complex farming operations and households making more than $250,000 a year - a far cry from the struggling family farms depicted by the farm lobby's emotional appeals.

Conservation compliance, enacted in 1985, required farmers to take simple steps to protect soil and wetlands in exchange for payments from farm subsidy, conservation and other USDA programs. It sparked dramatic progress in reducing soil erosion on the most vulnerable cropland and in saving wetlands.

It's been 30 years since conservation compliance went into effect. It's past time to ask farmers to do more in return for the billions of dollars taxpayers send them each year. A stronger conservation compliance provision should be the top priority for Congress as lawmakers draft the new farm bill.

Congress should require all subsidized growers to do more to curb polluted runoff from flowing into American rivers, lakes and streams, and to protect our drinking water. It's also past time for the USDA to meet its responsibility to make sure farmers satisfy those requirements.

A renewed and stronger conservation compliance provision will be a fairer deal for taxpayers. It should serve as the foundation on which Congress can build a more effective conservation title into the new farm bill.

Public should benefit from investment

The public has spent $29.8 billion on federal conservation programs since 2005. Americans have a right to expect a return on that substantial investment. USDA conservation programs must be tightly focused on reducing threats to public health and quality of life. Their top priorities should be to:

  • Ensure that drinking water is clean, safe and abundant by keeping fertilizers, manure, pesticides and mud out of source water, and by curbing unsustainable use of water for crop irrigation;
  • Clean up toxic lakes and polluted streams that are too dangerous or too repellent for people to swim in, float downstream or catch fish;
  • And reduce the massive doses of pesticides sprayed on farm fields and crops that end up in food, water and air.

The Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators should clamp down on water and air pollution caused by animals confined in factory farms. USDA programs should help farmers move away from raising livestock in confinement.

Farmers and landowners should be willing to pick up the cost of practices which will have the primary effect of increasing their productivity and profits.

Pay for what really works, where it is really needed

The nation has a huge opportunity to get more public benefits out of USDA conservation programs by sharpening priorities and spending money on only those conservation measures that are most effective in fixing the most important problems. Currently, conservation programs spread money and effort too thinly. Results are hard to discern when public investment does a little for a lot of broadly defined "priorities."

Since 1997, the EQIP program has let farmers choose among 350 individual practices. Since 2010, the CSP has allowed farmers to pick any of 200 individual enhancements. It's far too easy to implement these programs cafeteria-style, letting farmers pick the measures they like best, with too little regard for which remedies would do the most good.

Instead, USDA conservation programs should spend money only on practices that are the most effective in curtailing the most important causes of serious public health and quality of life threats. The choices offered to farmers should be limited to a much smaller set of practices and enhancements.

Moreover, conservation dollars should be concentrated on cooperative projects designed to get landowners to collaborate in deploying the right conservation practices in the right places. Too many conservation dollars are spread across the landscape with little strategic effort to connect the dots.

Congress attempted to correct this problem by creating the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the last farm bill. Time will tell if the RCPP is the right approach, but in the meantime, federal policy should focus more on coordinating conservation practices.

A no- or low-cost revolving loan fund would be a far better way to subsidize capital-intensive projects, such as building structures and buying expensive equipment. Such projects account for 61 percent of EQIP spending. Moving those projects to a loan fund would free up a portion of the $455 million EQIP spent in 2015 on such practices. That money could be used to encourage farmers to improve the management of their operations, enhancing protection of public health and the environment.

Lasting change vital

Between 2007 and 2014, landowners chose to take 15.8 million acres out of CRP as crop prices boomed. That added up to at least $8.9 billion in rental payments that created no lasting change.

Congress should ramp up funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and authorize a suite of more flexible easements designed to protect more types of sensitive land.

The USDA can encourage lasting progress by focusing technical and financial help on farmers willing to move toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly farming systems. Growers who make the transition to farming systems such as organic production, diversified crop and livestock production, moving animals from confinement to grass, and sophisticated rotational grazing systems are far more likely to keep those improved systems in place long-term.

A renewed and revamped CSP seems particularly suited to spurring such transitions and ensuring that taxpayers get a better return on their investment.

Transparency must improve

It was far too hard to assemble these data. The EWG staff had to file 28 separate Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain this information. Major data gaps remain, among them:

  • No information on what farmers are actually doing to earn the $968 million in CSP payments laid out between 2011 and 2014 for continuing to engage in practices that were already in place when they signed up for the program;
  • No information on expired CRP contracts;
  • No information about where the conservation practices subsidized by taxpayers are supposed to be implemented;
  • And no information about the number of confined animal operations receiving payments from conservation programs.

Taxpayers have the right to know far more about what they are getting for their money. The USDA must make detailed information readily available at the farm and field level. Congress should get out of the way and lift secrecy restrictions imposed on USDA to make this information accessible.


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