How Should Congress Amend the Farm Bill?

Agriculture Biodiversity Investments Water Sep 19, 2011

Through the Farm Bill, the U.S Department of Agriculture spends roughly $20 billion per year on payments to farmers, with about $5 billion of that delivered through the conservation title.   How should Congress amend the Farm Bill so that payments have a greater ecological impact?   Join the discussion on Ecosystem Commons until September 20.

19 September 2011 | The Ecosystem Commons is an online portal where members of the ecosystem services community can kick around ideas, showcase projects, and track trends.  

Sara Vickerman launched this discussion on the Ecosystem Commons earlier this month.   You can join it here.

The Discussion

The U.S Department of Agriculture spends roughly $20 billion per year on payments to farmers, with about $5 billion of that delivered through the conservation title. It offers the single greatest opportunity for the public to assist private landowners in providing ecosystem services, like clean water, biodiversity and climate regulation.   However, the funds are not invested according to any coherent strategy and the ecological outcomes are largely unknown.        

One proposal is to eliminate the subsidy for corn ethanol.   Adding corn ethanol to gasoline does not contribute to a meaningful reduction to greenhouse gases, causes the price of food to increase, and encourages continued degradation of the Midwestern landscape with heavy applications of fertilizers and pesticides.

Another proposal is to restructure the payments in the conservation title to be more strategic and more focused on ecological outcomes rather than practices.   The potential advantages would be to demonstrate to the public what tangible benefits are gained from the investments and possibly to simplify the delivery.     Some potential unintended consequences could be a disproportionate focus on ecological outcomes that can be easily measured, like water quality improvements, and lack of attention to biodiversity and other services that are difficult to quantify. Another potential downside might be spending too much money on the perfecting of measurement tools relative to the conservation benefits.  

What do you think Congress should do to improve the ecological effectiveness of the Farm Bill?  

Author bio: Sara is the senior director for biodiversity partnerships for Defenders of Wildlife, and director of the Northwest office. She serves on the Oregon Sustainability Board, American Forest Foundation and Willamette Partnership Boards, and advisory committees for the Doris Duke Foundation, Oregon Institute for Natural Resources, and Oregon Solutions. She successfully promoted conservation incentives and sustainability legislation in Oregon, and bills that encourage state agencies and local governments to use markets and payments for ecosystem services. She is also involved in developing recommendations for policy changes at the federal level and is working on metrics for habitat and biodiversity.

Perhaps they could widen the

Perhaps they could widen the corn ethanol subsidy to a biofuels subsidy, with a time limit of ten or twenty years during which the scientific and economic communities could study the outcomes to see if these processes are ecologically and financially feasible. For example, there are studies going on to use switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, native to much of the US, as an alternative to corn. Here’s an article from Scientific American about switchgrass as a biofuel:…

Even though there are many studies showing that corn is not a sustainable biofuel, I’d hesitate to eliminate the subsidy without a grace period or some program to help corn ethanol producers switch to a more viable alternative.

Conservation Tenders

Conservation Tenders -conservation leases sold at auction and linked to performance outcomes- have been used in Australia as a mechanism to create the market needed to develop supply & demand curves that allow efficiency analysis. See Dr. Jon Rolfe’s work at Central Queensland University for details.

Resource-Driven – The

Resource-Driven – The National Assocation of State Conservation Agencies received funding and support from the USDA to evaluate the nation’s conservation delivery system.   In its 2007 report, it recommended that the conservation delivery system reverse its current trend of a program-driven system back to a resource-driven process.   I think this recommendation would be aligned with your mentioned proposal to focus on ecological outcomes.   I think your concerns (unintended consequences) are valid, particularly in the early years, but they could be tempered with some foresight and guidelines.   One consequence of this may be the shift of debate toward the measurements and outcomes rather than programs and dollars that naturally creates silos in politics, administration, legislation, process and implementation.   In the longer term, the ecological outcome approach is really the only viable option if there is a desire to integrate corporate, industry, retail  and government ecoservice policy.   Under the government program system, all the responsibilty falls on the agency and farmer, and other stakeholders have a real hard time participating in a meaningful manner.

Additional resources