Climate insurance, not just crop insurance

Right now, there are no requirements for farmers receiving subsidized crop insurance to comply with even the most minimal conservation measures that would help keep topsoil from washing away during floods. They are not required, or even encouraged, to adopt farming practices that might help them avoid losing fields of food when extreme weather hits, putting the food supply, and taxpayers' pocketbooks, at risk. There is currently no limit on how much the federal government can spend on crop insurance payouts, and none proposed if insurance programs are expanded.

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It’s time to strike a bargain with America’s farmers. We value their livelihoods, and that’s why we’re willing to spend billions annually to subsidize the federal crop insurance system. In return, we should ask them to do everything they can to make sure our food supply stays secure as extreme weather increases. We should create “climate insurance” for agriculture, by requiring that farmers enrolled in subsidized crop insurance programs are working to make their farms more resilient to climate change.

This could be done by creating climate adaptation plans in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and farmers could get funding to create and implement these plans through existing programs in the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Farmers have always been at the mercy of the weather, which is why the federal government has offered subsidized crop insurance since the late 1930s. This kind of income insurance is critical to help keep farmers on the land, but our food supply needs insurance, too.

We can’t know what 2012 will bring for farmers weather-wise, but if the lack of winter snow cover and recent spate of tornados are an indication, this year could also prove to be a risky one for agriculture. If we value our food supply, we need act now to couple crop insurance with "climate insurance" to make sure that in the wake of the next round of floods and droughts, our food is safe, and so are our farmers.

Olmstead is a senior associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota.