Three university professors were in Washington on Wednesday discussing issues with agricultural legislation and regulations as well as potential fixes that could be on the horizon.

Specifically, the panelists discussed conservation, renewable fuels, and water quality policy with suggestions for improving the administrative and legislative approach to all three subject areas at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Erik Lichtenberg, a professor at the University of Maryland, focused his remarks and an accompanying report on the current farm bill’s conservation programs. He said USDA and the congressional agriculture committees should consider changing how they measure conservation benefits.

Lichtenberg said the formulas used to consider land eligible for USDA conservation programs need to be tweaked to consider more seriously things like affected populations and severe erosion and less seriously things like total farmland in a given space.

“I think the main area to look for improvement is simply by changing the formulas that are used to allocate funding,” he said. “It seems to me that we could get a lot more in the way of environmental benefits from the rather simple expedient of forcing USDA to allocate money using metrics that place most of their weight on environmental benefits as we economists typically think of them.”

Lichtenberg pointed out the Conservation Reserve Program’s Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) score has done little to change the geography of land included in the program. Conservation policy – and CRP specifically – has been a topic of conversation leading up to the deliberations of an upcoming farm bill.

Speaking on the issue of the Waters of the U.S. rule, Kansas State University Associate Professor Nathan Hendricks suggested that allowing environmental interests to play a bigger role in water quality conversations could lead to better outcomes. He said that could lead to a market-based approach rather than the government deciding the best ways to improve water quality.

He said he understands the “economic rationale” for using taxpayer money to prevent “freeloaders” taking advantage of their neighbors’ voluntary – and privately funded – efforts, but that the government being the funding mechanism isn’t the right way to go about it.

“The environmental interests have an interest in seeing improvements in water quality,” Hendricks said. “So they’ll determine how best to allocate that money, whether that is how to target the money, who to pay, which practices, and so they naturally have an incentive to see those improvements if the money is going through them rather than directly from the government.”

Asked later for clarification on whom he meant by “environmental interests,” Hendricks offered a very broad definition. from the local communities to recreational users of natural resources to nonprofits. Producers would likely bristle at the notion of routing the funding through entities – be they municipal or otherwise – that have held adversarial positions on production agriculture in the past.

Finally, Aaron Smith, a professor at the University of California, Davis, argued that research funding for things like cellulosic biofuels needs to be funded directly rather than through an indirect approach like the Renewable Fuel Standard. Proponents of the RFS have traditionally argued that the statute drives investment in the advanced biofuel, but Smith said the investment would be better directed without a government mandate. Furthermore, he encouraged lawmakers to think of avenues other than the farm bill to encourage that investment.

“That’s probably not the right place for that spending,” Smith said. “You could make good arguments that the research and development of new technologies is a good thing for the government to be doing, but you probably want … to be running that through an agency that’s going to be able to weigh up the costs and benefits of different types of technologies.”

He argued other government agencies could be able to determine the benefits of different types of transportation fuels rather than USDA.

Perhaps offering an insight into AEI’s views on some current forms of farm policy, all three presenters wrote articles that were classified on AEI’s website under the category of “American Boondoggle.”