For the past 25 years, farmers have observed a conservation compact with the American people - an acknowledgment that voluntarily accepting taxpayer money in the form of subsidies carries a responsibility to protect soil, water and wildlife habitat. Yet as lawmakers sit down to write the 2012 Farm Bill, this fundamental agreement, known as "conservation compliance," is under threat.
Today's biggest farm subsidy, crop insurance, has not contained a compliance provision since the 1996 Farm Bill. The connection was severed in order to get more farmers to participate in the (then much smaller) insurance program - through which taxpayers pay the majority of the cost of farmers' insurance coverage - to avoid the need to pass emergency disaster bills.
Times have changed. Fewer than 100 million acres of farmland were insured under the program in 1994. Today, over 260 million acres are covered, a participation rate of over 80 percent for the major crops, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the taxpayer cost over the next decade to be $90 billion.
It is imperative that current conservation compliance provisions for Farm Bill programs are retained and reapplied to subsidized crop insurance. Unfortunately, soil erosion is not a relic of the 1930s in Iowa. The Iowa Daily Erosion Project of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University tracks soil losses, showing that startling erosion rates are still occurring.
We know that large challenges exist for land and water conservation in the 2012 Farm Bill. Perhaps chief among them is the federal deficit. To achieve stewardship, prosperity, and fairness in the 2012 Farm Bill, Congress must recognize and respond to a convergence of three primary factors.
First, consistently strong crop prices are driving up land costs. Second, Farm Bill conservation funding is consistently and continually cut. Third, the dominant Farm Bill subsidy is now the Federal Crop Insurance program that has an unintended consequence of encouraging farmers to place soil and water resources at risk. The intersection of these three factors results in increasing threats to natural resources, increasing costs for resource protection incentives, and less money to invest.
Fortunately, a fix for these converging challenges already exists. It's as simple as closing the conservation compliance loophole for crop insurance in the 2012 Farm Bill.
Simply put, conservation compliance is a means for ensuring that where public money is invested, farmers will provide basic levels of protections for soil, water and wetlands. The penalty for not meeting these basic stewardship expectations is reducing or withholding Farm Bill subsidies.
Compliance provisions require no additional Farm Bill investment and in fact can only result in saving tax dollars.
The common-sense thing for Congress to do is re-establish the original conservation compliance expectations to crop insurance subsidies. Closing the loophole granted in 1996 will return needed consistency with all other production and conservation subsidies. As the single largest subsidy payment farmers receive from the Farm Bill - last year alone exceeding $7.4 billion paid out to farm operators in taxpayer dollars - crop insurance must be joined with basic protections for soil and wetlands.
Radical reforms or increased spending are not required. Instead, re-establishing the existing and logical covenant between taxpayers and producers represented by the conservation compliance regimen can save tax dollars, protect natural resources and increase conservation outcomes relative to current conditions. It is imperative that the 2012 Farm Bill takes this opportunity to steer federal policy toward an agricultural future that serves Iowans and all Americans.
Brad Redlin of St. Anthony, Minn., is national agriculture program director of the Izaak Walton League of America and Jerry Peckumn of Jefferson, Iowa, is board chairman of Iowa Rivers Revival (a statewide advocacy group committed to protection of Iowa's rivers and streams).