The farm bill targets the two-thirds of U.S. land that is privately owned, making it the largest source of federal funding for conservation and one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation, said Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future fellow and conservation expert Amanda Rodewald.
Rodewald, professor of natural resources and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Orthnithology, spoke about the importance of the farm bill to conservation outcomes on a panel in Washington, D.C., May 11.
The panel, co-hosted by the Atkinson Center and Resources for the Future (RFF) – a D.C.-based nonprofit that conducts economic research and policy engagement on environmental, energy and natural resource decisions – was attended by representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, conservation nonprofits and think tanks.
The discussion, featuring Rodewald, Ann Bartuska, vice president for land, water and nature at RFF and Callie Eideberg, senior policy manager for the ecosystems sustainable agriculture program at the Environmental Defense Fund, focused on elements of the farm bill that impact conservation and the environment. RFF President Richard Newell, who kicked off the event, said, “Today we’ll explore the opportunities to strengthen natural resource conservation in one of America’s most important pieces of legislation on agricuture, land use, water and biodiversity.”
Re-negotiated by Congress approximately every five years, the current farm bill is set to expire in September pending negotiations underway in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Title II – the part of the farm bill governing conservation – includes programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Conservation Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
“One of the opportunities I’ve seen in the farm bill is broad thinking about conservation, rather than policies targeting individual land-owners or farmers,” said Bartuska.
Rodewald, an ecologist by training, added, “The Lab of Ornithology and our partners have documented really incredible success stories from the farm bill. For example, farm bill provisions protected habitats that stabilized and often increased populations of waterfowl and wetland birds and are estimated to contribute at least 4 million ducks each year to North America.
“Studies consistently show that the farm bill gets positive returns on investment, including avoided costs or savings via the protection of soil fertility and water quality,” Rodewald said.
The legislation is unique politically because it includes funding for conservation programs in addition to supporting agricultural commodity programs and nutrition programs, notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Eideberg said that conservation programs are part of a broader package designed to appeal to both urban and rural populations. “As the demographics of our country change, putting nutrition benefits like SNAP that appeal to urban populations in a bill with agriculture and conservation creates a situation where a coalition is needed. The strength of conservation programs over several farm bills shows that conservation is a vital interest to both urban and rural groups.”
The panelists concluded by describing their wish lists for future farm bills with all three agreeing that additional resources dedicated to gathering and evaluating data would improve conservation programs. Eideberg suggested that a data warehouse consolidating data on cover crops, soil health, weather, crop yield and risk factors could be used to model environmental benefits and production.
“I would underscore the need for co-created and co-evaluated outcomes that would enable us to evaluate practices in real time and adjust,” Rodewald said. “Some of the best data we have in conservation come from individuals who observe wildlife on their land, citizen scientists. Let’s include the resources in legislation to make use of these data, evaluate programs and figure out how to do things better.”
Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist in Cornell’s Washington, D.C., office.