EDF: Farm Bill Conference Report a 'Mixed Bag'

The 2008 farm bill conference bill report appears to include important new investments in conservation but will not do enough to meet the growing need to expand and improve conservation programs or to reform the antiquated system of farm subsidies, according to Environmental Defense Fund.  

While the full text of the conference report is unavailable, the group cited the $4 billion in new outlays for conservation programs announced by conferees during a news conference on May 8 as an important step forward, but it is still insufficient to meet farmer demand. Since enactment of the 2002 farm bill, $13.5 billion in requests for conservation assistance from almost half a million farmers and ranchers have gone unfunded.

"The good news is that conference committee members recognized the need to boost conservation funding at a time when very high commodity prices are increasing pressure on our land, water, and important wildlife habitat," said Sara Hopper, an attorney with the group. "The bad news is that this new funding falls short of what's needed to provide farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners with the resources they need to help us solve some of the nation's biggest environmental problems."

The group criticized the House-Senate conference committee for increasing, rather than decreasing, farm subsidies. 

"With crop prices and farm incomes at record levels, Congress missed a once-in-five-years opportunity to reduce farm subsidies," Hopper said. "Instead, Congress has increased support levels for some crops, added new crops to the subsidy roll, and failed to make any significant reduction in direct payments. Direct payments will cost over $5 billion a year for the next five years and mostly flow to producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice regardless of how high prices are or whether the farmer needs the assistance." 

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill included a "Sodsaver" provision that would have barred crop insurance and some disaster payments to producers who plow up native grasslands in order to plant crops, but conference committee members gutted this provision during meetings that were not open to the public.

In a report issued last fall, the Government Accountability Office found that loss of grasslands -- more than 25 million acres since 1982 -- has been driven by the availability of crop insurance, disaster payments, and other farm subsidies. 

"The conference committee's decision to gut Sodsaver -- while adding almost $4 billion in new subsidies for a new permanent disaster fund that will accelerate the conversion of grassland to intensive crop production -- is a real disaster for the nation's remaining native prairies," concluded Hopper. "Add this to the pressures on grassland from high crop prices and you have a perfect storm for environmental destruction on the Great Plains."

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