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Colin Peterson, the 2012 Farm Bill and the environment

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felicep | Jun 05, 2010 12:35 PM

Lead by Chairman Colin Peterson of Minnesota, the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee held hearings and took testimony in April and May in preparation for a new Farm Bill. Peterson would like to pass a new version of the bill in 2012.

The process began with a hearing in DC on April 21st which I reported upon on this blog. Peterson then took the show on the road with hearings in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, South Dakota, California, Idaho, Iowa and Wyoming. Hearing witness lists and opening statements can be found on the House Agriculture Committee web site.

In DC and at field hearings all witness were producers of agricultural commodities, producers of forest products or professors – mostly from land grant Ag schools. Conspicuously absent were witnesses representing the environment; only one organic producer was among the dozens of agricultural leaders who testified.

Why were these hearings not more balanced? Are Ag and forest products producers and professors the only ones with ideas for the new Farm Bill? Are environmentalists across the country just not interested in agricultural issues or did Chairman Peterson intentionally exclude them from witness lists?  And why is the environmental community not protesting their exclusion loudly in the press?

In contrast to the agriculture industry, the new Farm Bill appears to not be on the radar screen of most environmental organizations. It is doubtful, for example, whether many grassroots forest activists and organizations are aware that a process is beginning which will impact their interests significantly. That is not surprising given the immediate threats which preoccupy these organizations and the fact that most of them operate on a shoestring budget.

There is no good explanation, however, for why most national environmental organizations appear unengaged in preparations for a new Farm Bill.  Scientists tell us that agricultural landscapes are key to maintaining biodiversity and agriculture is now the single most pervasive source of water pollution in virtually every US river basins. While the Clean Water Act has worked well to regulate point sources like sewage outfalls and factories, it has failed to control non-point pollution especially nitrates and pesticides from Ag lands, sediment from forest lands and stormwater run-off from everywhere.

These realities should motivate the environmental establishment to devote substantial resources to Farm Bill development in order to engage early and in depth.  But that is apparently not happening.  One possible reason was suggested by a reader who commented on my last Farm Bill post - the Farm Bill is not as "sexy" as protecting beautiful places and photogenic wildlife.

There is one major environmental organization, however, which does appear to be prepared for the new Farm Bill. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) devotes an entire section of its web site to farming. There is already a page on the new Farm Bill on their site. 

For the past fifteen years EWG has published and publicized the dollar value of subsidies paid each year to each individual US agricultural producer.  That daylight has been invaluable in raising public awareness about the welfare-for-millionaires approach which dominates US farm policy. EWG advocacy has had an impact. Income caps and absolute dollar limitations on payments to agricultural producers are now among the top issues when Congress debates a new Farm Bill.  

On its web site EWG offers praise for Chairman Peterson’s statement opening the Farm Bill development process  stating that Peterson “has opened the door to new ideas” but adding that EWG “sincerely hope(s) he will continue to welcome the kind of updated policies needed to bring America’s farm and food policies into the 21st century.”

It took Chairman Peterson less than a month to signal his disdain for limitations on taxpayer subsidies paid to individual agricultural producers and corporations. During the hearing in Texas, Peterson said he would like to eliminate all limitations on government payments to agricultural producers.

Limitations on payments were introduced in the 1970 Farm Bill and have changed in every Farm Bill since. A good description of complex Farm Bill subsidies in the current 2008 Farm Bill is available on line from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Will we make progress in the 2012 Farm Bill toward a farm policy that is environmental responsible and sustainable? Will the movement toward caps on payments to wealthy individuals and corporations advance or be rolled back as Chairman Peterson would like? Will the performance of Farm Bill “conservation programs” – so often criticized by the Agriculture Department’s Inspector General for “waste, fraud and abuse” - be examined and reforms instituted?

The answer to these questions will have an impact on the future of western landscapes and communities. It will depend in part on whether the environmental establishment engages early, deeply and with skill in a long and complex legislative process which has already begun. If the major environmental groups band together, activate their grassroots members and collaborate with progressive agricultural organizations and labor, the 2012 Farm Bill could include significant reforms…reforms which would have a positive impact on agricultural and forest landscapes critical to the health of rural habitats, rural communities and the nation's streams and rivers. Rapidly changing rural communities are also fertile grounds in which to develop new support for environmental protection.

These realities should motivate the environmental establishment to make the 2012 Farm Bill a top priority. But that does not appear to be the case. Their lack of engagement to date and the fact that they have not loudly protested their exclusion from initial Farm Bill hearings suggests that the environmental establishment will once again wait until the last stages of the Farm Bill and even then will engage only superficially in a small number of high profile issues.

The reasons for this myopia are not entirely clear; I invite readers to offer explanations. Rank and file members of national environmental organizations may also want to ask the organizations' leaders why Farm Bill policies and environmental performance are not among their organizations’ top priorities. 

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