WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 – Just one day before the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on conservation issues in the 2012 Farm Bill, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), released a new paper to make the case for linking crop insurance benefits to conservation cross-compliance and updating farmers’ conservation plans.

Since the 1985 Farm Bill, farmers have been required to meet certain conservation practice requirements in order to be eligible for direct payments, conservation programs and other federal farm program benefits. Since 1996, these requirements have not applied to subsidized crop insurance—in part because they were viewed as an impediment to moving away from ad hoc disaster programs and encouraging more crop insurance coverage.

Given that direct payments, are likely to be eliminated in the next farm bill, EWG says it’s time to require that anyone purchasing crop insurance also meet the conservation requirements. If enacted, cross-compliance could impact an estimated 53,000 farms with 17 million crop acres who received neither conservation payments nor direct payments in 2010, but did purchase crop insurance, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS).  However, ERS noted that some of these farms may already be subject to compliance requirements because of disaster payments.

“Insurance programs have quietly turned into the most expensive and farm-reaching subsidy today,” explained, Craig Cox, EWG’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources. At the same time, “we are concerned that the conservation compact is eroding.”

“With increasing commodity prices, the biofuels mandate and high land values, we are starting to move backwards (on conservation), Cox points out. “In the drive for all-out production, conservation is once again being pushed to the back seat – the very situation that led to enactment of conservation compliance provisions in the firrst place.”

The EWG report, “Conservation Compliance, a Retrospective…and Look Ahead” was written by Max Schnepf, a former editor of for the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

The report points out that, in the 10 years following enactment of the 1985 farm bill, farmers did more to curb soil erosion than at any time since the infamous Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s. But since 1997, EWG says the reduction in soil erosion has essentially leveled off. And their report makes the case that data reported in USDA’s National Resources Inventory (NRI) which indicate that soil erosion has dropped significantly in recent decades, are “grossly misleading.”

“In sharp contrast to the 2007 NRI estimate of 5.2 tons of soil loss per acre, the Iowa Daily Erosion Project conducted by Iowa State University scientists reported that 17.1 million acres – more than half the state’s cropland – suffered soil erosion that year exceeding the “sustainable” rate of 5 tons per acre,” Schnepf wrote.”The project also found that nearly 7 million acres – about a fourth of the total – lost more than 10 tons per acre.”

Despite the fact that the American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm groups oppose linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, Schnepf cites several surveys and polls in which he points out that farmers really do like federal conservation compliance policy.

“You hear one thing from farmer leaders and another thing from farmers on the ground,” he told Agri-Pulse.

Schnepf also points out that “The conservation ‘quid pro quo’ worked. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, soil erosion on highly erodible cropland was cut by 40 percent after conservation compliance was implemented.”

However, a recent Economic Research Service (ERS) report indicates that, although the rate of soil erosion on U.S. cropland and the rate of wetland drainage for agricultural production have dropped significantly in recent decades, “these trends alone are insufficient to show compliance's efficacy.

“Environmental gain can be attributed to compliance mechanisms (or any agri-environmental program) only to the extent that the incentive prompted a change in producer behavior. Because producers respond to a wide range of market and policy incentives, isolating the effect of compliance mechanisms can be difficult,” according to ERS.

“Between 1982 and 1997, annual soil erosion from cropland dropped by 1.2 billion tons. (Erosion reduction data are from the National Resources Inventory (NRI). Of this total, 442 million tons occurred on non-HEL land—where conservation compliance did not apply—leaving 732 million tons. Because compliance was formulated to avoid forcing land out of production, erosion reduction due to land use change (365 million tons, including CRP enrollment) was probably not caused by compliance, leaving 367 million tons. Erosion reduction to levels below the soil loss tolerance (T) level (36 million tons) also cannot be attributed to conservation compliance because conservation compliance required—at most—that erosion be reduced to T. Finally, erosion reduction on farms that do not receive government payments (36 million tons) cannot be attributed to compliance, leaving 295 million tons, or 25 percent of the 1.2-billion-ton reduction in cropland soil erosion between 1982 and 1997.

Furthermore, ERS notes that “some erosion reduction may have occurred even in the absence of a compliance requirement. For example, conservation tillage can preserve soil moisture where rainfall is limited and can also reduce machinery, fuel, and labor costs, making it profitable for some producers regardless of its effect on soil erosion. Tillage and planting machinery needed to practice conservation tillage became widely available only in the mid- to late 1970s. Because widespread adoption of new practices often occurs over a long period of time, producers who included conservation tillage in compliance plans may have eventually adopted the practice for economic reasons even without the compliance requirement.”

The EWG report neglects to mention how soil conservation efforts have improved as a result of the adoption of new equipment and biotechnology.

“The adoption of biotech crops – especially soybeans – closely tracks the expansion of conservation tillage and no-till production,” according to a report by the Conservation Technology Information Center, which was funded by the United Soybean Board.

“Between the introduction of Roundup Ready® soybeans in 1996 and the 2008 cropping season, the U.S. acreage of no-tilled full-season soybeans grew by nearly 70 percent. Conservation tillage and no-till improve soil quality, conserve water and provide wildlife habitat. They also significantly reduce soil erosion, nutrient enrichment of streams and herbicide runoff. In fact, a number of studies show reductions in soil loss of more than 90 percent and reduced movement of total phosphorus by more than 70 percent on no-till fields,” according to CTIC.

To read the entire EWG report: http://bit.ly/xc3qYH

For a copy of the ERS briefing report: http://1.usa.gov/wxueZ1

For a copy of the CTIC report: http://bit.ly/AlOLCK




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