News and commentary about the American food system.
Plus, Biden gives biofuels a huge boost, the 2025 Dietary Guidelines process kicks off, and more.
By Lisa Held
April 19, 2022
Federal conservation programs are supposed to distribute taxpayer dollars to farmers who use practices that improve water quality, build soil health, and preserve and restore ecosystems. But a portion of the funding supports practices that some say fail to deliver on those goals.
Take the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)—the most popular farm bill conservation program. Some farmers use funding they receive through the program to build high tunnels for organic vegetables, plant cover crops, and put up fencing to practice rotational grazing to improve soil health. But many never receive the money they request. In fact, two-thirds of EQIP applications are rejected due to limited funds.
And according to a new report from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP), one reason is that significant chunks of money are being spent to fund conventional farming practices that fall far short of qualifying as conservation.
“At the same time that farmers are getting rejected, there are these large contracts that are going to more polluting operations, to industrial practices that are antithetical to EQIP’s original intent,” said Michael Happ, the program associate for climate and rural communities at IATP and author of the report.
Happ looked at data on EQIP contracts awarded in 2020 in 12 agriculture-heavy Midwest and Great Plains states. He identified 10 practices IATP considers “industrial” and found the percentage of funds going to those practices varied considerably by state, from a low of 2 percent in North Dakota to a high of 37 percent in Illinois.
In Iowa and other states that are home to large industrial animal agriculture industries, the report detailed how EQIP funds practices that involve managing the large amounts of animal waste generated by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). A change in the 2002 Farm Bill made CAFOs eligible for EQIP funds for the first time, a development that has been controversial from the start. Organizations like IATP contend that the CAFO system is inherently unsustainable, and taxpayer money should not be used to clean up the resulting accumulation of manure. Instead, they argue that it should be used to help farmers avoid those systems altogether and use practices such as managed grazing, which has science-based environmental benefits.
“Not only are some of these practices like waste storage facilities propping up a harmful system, but they’re also really expensive and they are closing out more people.”
Other practices that received millions of dollars in EQIP funding in 2020 included installing drainage systems that help move excess water off of commodity crop fields. Those systems are almost exclusively used by large farms growing monoculture crops, and the drainage can wash excess nutrients and pesticides into rivers and streams, where they can contribute to water pollution and ultimately end up fueling the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, the report also demonstrates that the average contract size for the practices it classified as industrial is often much larger than other, more clearly environmentally beneficial practices. And, as a result, money is being distributed among fewer farmers. Minnesota, for example, spent more than $3 million funding just 38 “waste facility covers” for CAFOs at close to $80,000 each. In Iowa, just over $2 million funded 22 of those covers, whereas a nearly identical amount of money in Kansas funded 850 prescribed grazing projects. “Not only are some of these practices like waste storage facilities . . . propping up a harmful system, but they’re also really expensive and they are closing out more people,” Happ said.
The report’s findings are especially relevant as hearings and negotiations for the next farm bill ramp up. Lawmakers are already discussing potential changes and expansions to conservation programs, and previous studies have brought up other EQIP limitations, especially given the current administration’s desire to align conservation goals with climate action. Last year, for example, a University of Maryland study found that less than a quarter of EQIP contracts between 2009 and 2018 funded practices with the most potential to benefit soil and environmental health.
It’s unlikely farm and environmental groups with various perspectives will agree on exactly what a conservation program like EQIP should and shouldn’t pay for any time soon. But in Happ’s mind, there are simple ways to begin to apply more common sense to the issue. “Are we paying for buildings or for native grasses?” he asked. “Are we paying for riparian buffers or concrete?”
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Why Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
Will the Next Farm Bill Move the Needle on Climate Action?
Biden’s Biofuel Boost. In an effort to curb high gas prices, President Biden announced (in front of an enormous pile of corn) that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would issue an emergency waiver allowing gasoline that is higher in ethanol to be sold this summer. The blend, called E15, is usually banned between June and September to prevent smog, and while the decision was initially temporary, the White House said EPA is “also considering additional action to facilitate the use of E15 year-round.” And he didn’t stop there: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also announced $700 million in pandemic assistance funds for biofuel producers and $100 million in grants for new biofuel infrastructure. Although Biden has long expressed support for ethanol, all of this news comes on the heels of new research showing that the expansion of corn acres for ethanol has likely led to land use changes that resulted in higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to those from gasoline use.
How Corn Ethanol for Biofuel Fed Climate Change
In a Year of Climate Reckoning, Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Climate and Agriculture?
The Next Pyramid Scheme. If keeping up with the never-ending swirl of controversies surrounding every edition of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans makes you want to grab a glass of wine, you’re not alone. But don’t expect the guidelines to weigh in about your drink of choice anytime soon. Alcohol is one of two topics the 2025 Advisory Committee will not be considering. According to last week’s announcement, a separate process will tackle recommendations on alcohol and health; climate and its relationship to food and nutrition will also get its own process. The proposed scientific questions the panel will consider is now available for public comment, and it’s sure to generate plenty of input. Previous iterations have drawn scrutiny for alleged corporate influence and lack of attention to racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. On the latter point, the USDA said that this time around, “All scientific questions will be reviewed with a health-equity lens to ensure that resulting guidance in the Dietary Guidelines is relevant to people with diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.”
Questions Remain About Big Food’s Influence on the New Dietary Guidelines
Should the Dietary Guidelines Help Fight Systemic Racism?
Pesticide Poisoning and Human Trafficking as Job Hazards. According to an investigation by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a group of 20 farmworkers working for a subsidiary of Corteva Agriscience in Illinois were sprayed with pesticides twice during a two-week period in 2019. The pesticide applicators were fined just $750 for the violations, shining light on an enforcement system with weak penalties for exposing humans to potentially harmful chemicals. At the same time, lawmakers and advocates are putting pressure on the Biden administration to reform the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, after an investigation that came to light last year. Long rife with abuse, the investigation revealed that the program was used by human traffickers in Georgia to force migrant workers to work for zero pay in hellish conditions. According to allegations, some were sexually assaulted, and some didn’t survive. The conditions were described in court as “modern-day slavery.”
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Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Read more >
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