Farm bill pays high dividends for people and the environment
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The Agriculture Adjustment Act, also known as the farm bill, provides crop payments, insurance subsidies and loans to many American farmers. However, fewer recognize that the bill has a much wider scope that includes forestry, energy and conservation programs.

A new report called, The State of the Birds 2017: A Farm Bill Special Report, highlighted how this strategic federal investment not only supports the livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners, but also protects critical ecosystem services and biodiversity.

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The most recent farm bill is set to expire in 2018 — something that could have enormous consequences for the environment. Although less than 5 percent of farm bill funds have been directed towards conservation programs in its Title II provisions, the bill stands as one of the most important sources of conservation funding in the U.S. and is the largest directed towards the private lands that comprise two-thirds of the land area in the lower 48 states.

 

Programs include the well-known Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) along with others like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

While the public rightly worries about threats like tropical deforestation rates in Brazil and Indonesia, most people don’t realize that rates of habitat loss in our nation’s Western corn belt were shockingly comparable. But the farm bill has been helping to change that.

Cases drawn from The State of the Birds 2017 report illustrate just how transformative the farm bill has been for conserving wetland, grassland, and forest habitats and the more than 100 bird species that use them. For example, in the Prairie Pothole Region, waterfowl populations have increased by 37 million birds between 1992-2011.

That increase isn’t only good for birds; it’s good for people too. Healthy waterfowl populations help generate $430 million annually from hunting and bird-watching activities in the region. The same is true for the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, where farm bill wetlands provide more than one-third of the food energy available to waterfowl. In fact, the addition of wetland easements to the farm bill in 1990 helped to reverse — and raise by a factor of 6 — population trends for waterfowl across the U.S.

The farm bill’s voluntary, incentive-based programs also benefit our nation by averting costly measures associated with the listing and recovery of federally threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Looking at one highly controversial species in recent headlines — the Greater Sage-Grouse — farm bill programs already have protected over 5 million acres of sagebrush habitat and, as such, substantially contributed to the decision not to list the bird as federally endangered.

The new report also showcases how economic benefits of the farm bill flow from ecosystem services, such as protection of water quality, enhancement of soil fertility, and pest control by birds. Within the Prairie Pothole Region, farm bill conservation programs (if reauthorized) are expected to provide $1 billion of net benefits from ecosystem services over the next 20 years.

The region has already benefited from ecosystem services that include adding 150 billion gallons of floodwater catchment capacity and reducing sediments added by waterways by 44 billion pounds of sediment in 2013 alone. There is other evidence to show that farm bill programs not only doubled the numbers of grassland birds on participating farms but also increased predation of insect crop-pest eggs on farms by 30 percent, a benefit derived in part to foraging by insectivorous birds. The monetary value of these ecosystem services add up.

A 2015 study estimated that co-benefits from ecosystem services resulted in a return on investment from CRP dollars was 1.6-1.8x greater than the payments to farmers in a single Iowa watershed.

Even without considering such natural dividends, taxpayers are getting a good deal. The farm bill’s programs leverage billions of contributions from partners. In the first three years of the Regional Partnership Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture used farm bill funds to leverage partner contributions resulting in $1.49 billion in conservation impact.

As Congress discusses the farm ill over the next few months, many hope that lawmakers will see it, once again, as a win-win for people and the environment. By compensating farmers, ranchers, and landowners for conservation practices, the farm bill provides alternative income streams that can sustain livelihoods at a time when growing social, economic, and ecological pressures are depressing incomes, heightening risk and uncertainty, and fueling rises in bankruptcy rates among farmers.

By protecting and restoring habitats, the bill ensures the maintenance of critical ecosystem services that support human health and well-being and conserve biodiversity. It’s true, the political stage are more divisive than ever. A reauthorized and strengthened farm bill can be a bipartisan model that acknowledges the interdependency of social and ecological prosperity and shows how we stand to gain the most when we work together.

 Amanda Rodewald is the Garvin professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Public Voices fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.