A partisan divide is emerging heading into the upcoming farm bill over whether or not to link crop insurance coverage with climate change mitigation efforts. 

Days after House Ag Committee Republicans expressed skepticism at the connection, Rep. Cheri Bustos, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the panel's General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, told Agri-Pulse Newsmakers the issues have a link.

“You really can't separate the two,” said Bustos. “We've got to have a strong safety net program, and obviously, a strong safety net program has a lot to do with the climate.”

House Ag ranking member Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said during the hearing Wednesday he believes the climate-focused efforts should be addressed in conservation programs instead of crop insurance.

“I’m confident if the data supports it, and agronomic conditions allow it, farmers will naturally gravitate toward adoption of the practices best for their farms. We don’t need to use crop insurance as a carrot — or worse, as a stick — to force their hand," Thompson said. 

Aside from climate concerns, Bev Paul, a lobbyist for Gordley Associates and policy adviser for the AGree Coalition, said she would like to see the crop insurance program expand beyond annual protection to better promote crop rotation and sustainable practices. 

“We're really starting to focus on de-risking the transition to conservation agriculture, and how that can be done,” she said. “How do we make sure that the crop insurance program isn't standing in the way of farmers who want to try new crops and new practices, in their effort to become sustainable for the long term?”

While many are approaching the upcoming farm bill with long lists of priorities — including some that could prove very costly — Bustos said the legislation could be faced with tight budgetary constraints. 

“You can't ignore the fact that you can't just print money and continue to spend in a way that is indiscriminate,” Bustos said. “I think everything also has to be looked at through a lens of what can we afford … We have to make sure that our policy is in the right place, but also that it's affordable policy.”

But in the event Congress is looking to expand programs in the next farm billNewsmaker panelist Tom Sell, a managing partner at Combest, Sell and Associates, said there could be justification for growth in the budget for crop insurance. Sell said disaster spending in recent years has created an expectation for ad hoc spending. 

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“You have none of that (ad hoc funding) captured in the baseline,” said Sell. “ (Congress is going to) have to do something. We're also having a disaster again this year, and there's an expectation based on five years of ad hoc. So I think that all sets up to be well to bring some new money into the farm bill.”

For his part, former Ag House Committee Chairman Mike Conaway — who helped author the 2018 legislation — told Agri-Pulse now could be a good time for Congress to introduce new money to the farm bill. However, he says it may be a difficult request.

“The struggle to write a farm bill under any circumstances is hard,” said Conaway. “But having new money would make it just a little bit, modestly less difficult because you always have new needs and new competition for resources that come under that bill. So money would be a real boon to the folks that are going to write that bill next year or the year after.”

However, Conaway did acknowledge the struggle getting new money would be in light of the country's growing deficit.

More comments from Bustos, Conaway, Paul and Sell are available in the latest episode of Agri-Pulse Newsmakers.

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