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Hogs are raised on Duncan Farms on June 6, 2018 near Polo, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson via Getty Images)

Hogs are raised on Duncan Farms on June 6, 2018 near Polo, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson via Getty Images)

USDA Conservation Program Must Be Reformed to Stop Funding Pollution, Report Shows

"The more money that goes toward harmful, industrial practices, the less that goes toward good conservation," said a researcher from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Kenny Stancil

One of the U.S. government's key conservation programs has been subsidizing ecologically harmful agricultural operations to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year and must be reformed to ensure that only environmentally beneficial practices are supported.

"We need to reexamine what we are spending our money on and whether it deserves the label of 'environmental.'"

That's according to Payments for Pollution: How federal conservation programs can better benefit farmers and the environment, a new report out Thursday from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). 

Although a pair of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiatives—the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)—have helped some farmers adopt more sustainable methods, IATP showed last year that just 42% of CSP applicants and 31% of EQIP applicants were awarded contracts from 2010 to 2020.

IATP's new report scrutinizes the implementation of EQIP throughout 12 Midwestern states in 2020. Using state-level USDA data, IATP analyzed the number of contracts awarded, the amount of funding allocated, and the types of practices supported by EQIP in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

It found that while thousands of farmers are being denied access to federal resources that could help them minimize their negative ecological impacts and improve their economic prospects, EQIP funneled more than $56 million toward industrial agricultural practices that worsened the quality of the land, air, and water in just a dozen states in 2020 alone.

"The more EQIP money that goes toward harmful, industrial practices, the less that goes toward good conservation," Micahel Happ, report author and program associate for climate and rural communities at IATP, said in a statement. "When fewer than one-third of EQIP applicants are awarded contracts nationwide, we need to reexamine what we are spending our money on and whether it deserves the label of 'environmental.'"

Citing the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Happ wrote that there is as "urgent need for more resilient systems for farmers and eaters to withstand the shocks of an increasingly unpredictable climate."

"Unfortunately, the current agricultural marketplace does not reward farmers for resilience," Happ continued. "Instead, it pressures farmers to buy into a system of high-cost, industrial farming methods that leave the water and air worse off while keeping many farmers strapped for cash year to year."

"This is where EQIP comes in," wrote Happ. "Since EQIP's inception in the 1996 Farm Bill, it has helped farmers pay for farming methods that can increase both economic and environmental resilience in the face of climate change—helping reimburse farmers for practices focused on increased soil health, cover crops, pasture management, buffers between waterways and tilled farmland, and many other tried-and-true methods of reducing risk in farming."

He added that "at the same time that EQIP pays farmers to improve their land and mitigate climate risks, it is also subsidizing many highly polluting farms that are actively making the climate crisis worse."

"At a large enough scale, any practice can help prop up big factory farms, but there are a handful of EQIP practices that we consider the worst offenders," states the report. After reviewing more than 300 practices supported by EQIP through cost-share payments in the Midwest in 2020, ITAP identified 10 particularly detrimental ones "that perpetuate unnatural systems."

IATP singled out "practices that disrupt the natural flow of water and many practices that incentivize farmers to keep livestock in CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] and away from pastures."

For example, underground outlets, which transport surface water away from fields, make intensive crop production possible. But draining wetlands increases the volume of water in creeks, streams, and rivers, exacerbating erosion and carrying nitrates to the Gulf of Mexico.

Waste storage facilities used by large meat and dairy corporations that dominate the livestock supply chain might prevent seepage into soil and groundwater, but "they are cleaning up the messes created by industrial farming using federal money that would be better used on truly agroecological practices," stressed Happ. Moreover, the growing concentration of animal manure increases the emission of methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases.

According to IATP, the 10 worst EQIP-supported agricultural practices—labeled "industrial" or "factory-farm friendly"—are those that involve:

  • Underground outlets;
  • Subsurface drains;
  • Waste storage facilities;
  • Waste facility covers;
  • Closure of waste impoundments;
  • Manure transfers;
  • Animal mortality facilities;
  • Emergency animal mortality management;
  • Roof runoff management; and
  • Pumping plants for water control.

"Before the 2002 Farm Bill, CAFOs were specifically excluded from EQIP funding," IATP noted. "EQIP was started with the express intent of helping farmers put in place sound conservation on their land, but since the inclusion of CAFO funding in EQIP, more and more resources have gone toward industrial practices."

"As the costs of these industrial practices on the planet become clearer, it becomes less defensible to allow public funds to support them."

"By law, 50% of EQIP funds are earmarked for livestock-specific practices," says the report. "While some of that money does go toward practices like rotational grazing and water conservation-related practices, an inordinate amount goes toward industrial practices."

The amount of EQIP money that each Midwestern state allocates to "factory-farm friendly" practices varies significantly. For instance, Illinois and Minnesota spent 37.3% and 30.8% of their EQIP funds on industrial practices in 2020, respectively, while North Dakota spent just 2.1%."

Unlike other states in the region, North Dakota "continues to have strict protections for family farms and legal definitions of what is considered a farm," the report points out.

To prevent further misdirection of funds to large, polluting operations and to ensure federal conservation money reaches the low-capital farmers who need it most, "including those who integrate more climate-friendly, agroecological practices and systems," the report urges the USDA to:

  • Pay farmers for practices ahead of time, at up to 100% of cost;
  • Remove harmful industrial practices from EQIP funding eligibility and restore EQIP to its original intent;
  • Improve outreach to farmers of color;
  • Prioritize sustainable grazing systems in livestock set asides; and
  • Ensure the responsible collection of data on who is being served by federal programs.

IATP argued that "while these policy solutions are by no means the only reforms needed for EQIP to betting align the program toward economic and environmental justice for farmers, they are good first steps."

The organization also encouraged farmers and other members of the public to get involved in their state technical advisory committees (STACs), which can help push the implementation various farm bill conservation programs in a more equitable direction.

"EQIP helps pay for crucial practices like erosion controls, better pasture management for livestock, and practices that keep runoff out of our waterways," said Happ. "We need to double down on these beneficial practices and target them toward farmers who need help the most. We can't waste precious resources on expensive structures that clean up messes that shouldn't have been made in the first place."

"As the costs of these industrial practices on the planet become clearer, it becomes less defensible to allow public funds to support them," the report concludes. "While the cost of climate inaction is high, the cost of climate antagonism is higher."

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