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Two New Bills to Support Organic Farmers, Consumers and the Environment



The Environmental Working Group has been working on two agriculture bills with environmental implications with representatives in Congress. Both bills have been referred to committee. Calling them "critical to protecting healthy and organic food and family farms," EWG is asking for support in getting local representatives to co-sponsor the bills.

H.R. 1890, known as the Balancing Food, Farm and Environment Act and H.R. 1995, known as the AFFIRM Act, seeks to upgrade the conservation title in the Food Security Act of 1985 to address the current scope and nature of farming practices and their environmental effects and limit and more evenly distribute crop insurance subsidies to farmers by reforming the Federal Crop Insurance Act, respectively.

The Balancing Act focuses on highly erodible land and wetland conservation by promoting greater protection easements and natural buffers and more integrated farming practices  providing incentives to farmers who adopt or maintain crop rotation, intensive rotational grazing and transition to organics crop of livestock systems, all of which reduce erosion, improve water quality by reducing nutrient pollution, improve soil fertility, interrupt pest cycles and preserve groundwater sources - which reduce irrigation needs - and increase soil carbon sequestration.

The following specific practices will increase federal payments to farmers:

(A) residue and tillage management;
(B) contour farming;
(C) cover cropping;
(D) integrated pest management;
(E) nutrient management;
(F) stream corridor improvement;
(G) invasive plant species control;
(H) contour buffer strips;
(I) riparian herbaceous and forest buffers;
(J) filterstrips;
(K) stream habitat improvement and management;
(L) grassed waterways;
(M) wetland restoration and enhancement;
(N) pollinator habitat; or
(O) conservation crop rotation

The bill also contains provisions for ending grants to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and reducing the prevalence of antibiotic use in livestock feed.

The office of Rep. Earl Blumenauer,D-Ore., the bill's sponsor, provides an overview of the bill's benefits to the environment, wildlife, small farmers and consumers.

According to an EWG report from this year, under the federal Conservation Reserve Program, taxpayers paid $6.6 billion over six years to preserve 14 million acres of land that were put back into agricultural production because of short-term rental agreements between farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Balancing Act extends these contracts, while also expanding access to the voluntary Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program, which provides financial and technical assistance to farmers with long-term contracts through its air quality, on-farm energy, seasonal high tunnel and organic initiatives, intended to reduce airborne pollution and energy use and expand the growing season in an environmentally sound manner and provide incentives to go organic.

According to the office of Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., a co-sponsor of the AFFIRM Act, which "limits the total value of crop insurance subsidies to $40,000 per person each year,  eliminates crop insurance premium subsidies for individuals with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of more than $250,000, and requires more of the administrative and operating (A&O) costs to be shared by the private companies that offer coverage," the act will save taxpayers $11 billion over 10 years, while helping family farmers.

Underlining the skewed federal investment in farming operations and private insurers, Kind's office released the following statement:

"From 2001 to 2012, crop insurance companies enjoyed $10.3 billion in underwriting gains while taxpayers suffered a net loss of $276 million. Over 4,200 farmers received more than $100,000 in premium subsidies in 2011 and 26 received more than $1 million in subsidies. In contrast, the bottom 80 percent of policyholders received only 27 percent of subsidies in 2011, with an average subsidy of around $5,000."

An independent report found that crop insurance, accounting for 63 percent of the USDA commodity subsidy budget, affects production in three principal ways that perpetuate and even augment the subsidy system and harm environmental conservation efforts by providing incentives to plant on sensitive land, increase chemical fertilizer use, and plant crops that are more damaging to the environment:

  • The subsidies raise the net revenue per acre and thereby raise incentives to plant eligible crops and plant more of crops with higher subsidy rates.
  • The availability of crop insurance, which is made possible by the government program, encourages planting insured crops on fields that would not otherwise be considered for that crop because of the potential for significant losses.
  • By reducing chances of losses from low yields and prices, crop insurance creates incentives for growers to undertake fewer other risk mitigating practices and therefore focus more on increases in average productivity.

Ken Cook, EWG founder, has called the Balancing and AFFIRM acts the most important environmental legislation that will be considered in Congress this year.