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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Agricultural Conservation and the Next Farm Bill

Megan Stubbs
Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Reauthorization of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 farm bill) failed to pass in the 112th Congress, leaving it to the 113th Congress to continue the farm bill debate. The conservation title continues to receive attention and interest from farmers and ranchers as well as environmental and conservation organizations. Contentious issues raised in the 2012 farm bill debate might continue in the 113th Congress, specifically calls to reduce overall funding levels, including conservation, and the addition of crop insurance as a benefit lost under conservation compliance. Other issues from the 2012 farm bill reauthorization debate include consolidating duplicative programs, using public-private partnerships to extend federal funding, and amending existing programs by adding new options to protect and restore resources on agricultural lands.

Budgetary concerns continue to drive the farm bill reauthorization discussion, with additional emphasis placed on reducing mandatory spending. In the past 25 years, conservation has received an increasing level of mandatory funding authorized through farm bills. Nutrition, direct payments, crop insurance, and conservation make up 99% of the 10-year estimated baseline funding for farm bill programs. As a result, conservation is one of the four major sources of mandatory program spending that continues to be closely examined during reauthorization. Several conservation programs, provisions, and funding authorized in the 2008 farm bill expired at the end of FY2012 and were extended to the end of FY2013 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-240). This extension did not include additional baseline funding for the 37 farm bill provisions that do not have baseline funding beyond FY2012, five of which are within the conservation title.

The Senate-passed (S. 3240) and House-reported (H.R. 6083) farm bills in the 112
th Congress included a number of program consolidations within the conservation title. The existing portfolio of conservation includes more than 20 programs, ranging in size and scope. The large number of programs has been cited as a source of confusion and redundancy, causing both the current and previous Administrations to request some form of consolidation. Other programmatic topics continue to be discussed and debated about conservation: (1) Should existing programs be amended, and if so, how? (2) How should funding be divided between programs for land retirement and for working lands? (3) Should conservation programs be subject to the same program limitations as other commodity support programs? (4) How will the debate be affected by new data that highlight the connection between conservation practices and positive environmental results? Various responses to these questions have been offered in extensive testimony at hearings, and are reflected in the policy options that Congress is considering.

The federal response to environmental concerns related to agriculture is generally viewed as both supportive and restrictive. One of the primary means of support is provided through the voluntary conservation programs established in the farm bill. These conservation programs are increasingly called upon to support best management practices to meet federal environmental requirements; however, these programs are being considered for funding reductions. Other conservation efforts, such as conservation compliance on highly erodible lands and wetlands compliance, might be viewed as restrictive. Potential changes in commodity programs could reduce the effectiveness of compliance programs. This has caused some to advocate for reestablishing compliance requirements to other farm program benefits, such as crop insurance.

Date of Report: February 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R42093
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