Farm Conservation Programs Cost Billions and Have Mixed Results

The Environmental Working Group’s new database breaks down the allocation of federal funds for agriculture conservation.
Rows of garlic on a farm. (Photo: Gary Weathers/Getty Images)
Oct 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The federal government has paid farmers billions of dollars over the years to mitigate the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. According to new data published this week by the Environmental Working Group, $30 billion in taxpayer funds has been spent on conservation programs over the last decade—and the results are decidedly so-so.

EWG has compiled the payments in excruciating detail in a comprehensive database. As it has done with farm subsidy payments, the group tracks—on a state-by-state, county-by-county level—exactly where the nearly $30 billion the federal government has spent over the last decade on agricultural conservation programs has gone.

It seems like a lot of money—until you realize that in 2014 alone, taxpayers shelled out $14 billion for farm subsidies and crop insurance programs. During the past couple decades, we’ve spent $265 billion on those programs, mostly to benefit industrial-scale farming operations as opposed to small family farms, as watchdog organizations such as EWG have reported.

That’s part of the point.

“It’s more than fair to expect farmers and landowners to do more to protect the environment in return for the generous farm and insurance subsidies they receive,” Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said in a statement.

That it took more than seven years and 28 Freedom of Information Act requests for the group to collect this public data no doubt says something about the transparency of these programs, not to mention their sprawling complexity—which, in turn, reflects the myriad effects that agriculture has on the environment.

It’s almost impossible to adequately summarize the things that federal conservation programs, administered by the Department of Agriculture, are intended to do. There are programs for minimizing soil erosion, preventing the loss of wetlands, reducing agrochemical pollution of drinking water, conserving wildlife habitat, and the list goes on.

Yet while some conservation programs appear to be working on some level, EWG said, “too often the money is spread too thinly to counter the impacts of agriculture on our nation’s water, air and land.” The group notes that one program allows farmers to choose from among 350 conservation measures, while another offers 200 options—a “cafeteria-style” approach that gives farmers a pass to pick what they want to do rather than what might be most beneficial. “Results are hard to discern when public investment does a little for a lot of broadly defined ‘priorities,’ ” the group said.

Oh, and did I mention? These programs are voluntary anyway; there’s no requirement that farmers participate.

In effect, EWG argues that certain conservation measures, such as curbing the amount of polluted agricultural runoff pouring into public waterways, should be the cost of doing business for large-scale farms—not subsidized by taxpayers. When it comes to other programs, the group advocates for a more targeted approach focusing on conservation strategies that work as well as identifying areas or regions most in need.

While we’re at it, why don’t we reward farmers who make long-term commitments to sustainability? Shouldn’t we incentivize switching to organic farming practices rather than continue to spend billions paying farmers to temporarily set aside land for “conservation,” only to plow it under again when crop prices rise?

“Americans across the country are seeing the price of farm pollution firsthand,” Cox said. “It’s time for Congress to deliver a return on their tax dollars by requiring farmers who take money from these programs to do more to protect the environment and public health.”