Tag Archive | "crop insurance"

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

Grassland Conversions Threaten Lesser Prairie Chicken

LPC Habitat conversion map

Lesser prairie chicken habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

The lesser prairie chicken, one of our nation’s iconic grassland birds known for its unique breeding behavior, is also one of our most at-risk species. A new report released by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that increased crop insurance subsidies are threatening to convert even more of the grasslands that these birds need to survive.

To read more about lesser prairie chickens and farm subsidies, see our fact sheet.

Lesser prairie chickens rely on a diversity of grassland habitats, including short- and mid-height grasses and forbs together with shrubs to provide cover. Loss of this diverse habitat is one of the biggest threats to the lesser prairie chicken’s continued survival.  As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided in 1998 that the species warranted protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Unless the situation improves for the prairie chicken, it may become federally protected by next fall as part of the Service’s six-year plan to issue final listing decisions for over 250 candidate species.

Based on our report, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses,” more than 1.5 million acres of habitat have been converted to cropland in counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found between 2008 and 2011. This is despite investments by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In FY11, NRCS spent $11 million on improving land management and increasing and enhancing lesser prairie chicken habitat on 458,000 acres. However successful these activities are, even these investments won’t be enough to stem the loss of lesser prairie chicken habitat given the current rate of conversion.

Although the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is currently up in the air, one thing is certain: increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring basic environmental protections creates incentives for farmers to plow up more grassland and wetlands. The Senate passed a bi-partisan amendment to its Farm Bill that attaches basic environmental requirements to crop insurance subsidies. To protect the lesser prairie chicken and our nation’s other iconic wildlife, conservation compliance must be included in any Farm Bill Congress passes in 2012.

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Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

Crop Insurance and Wildlife: Swift Fox at Risk

 

Map showing acres converted to cropland

Swift fox habitat on converted acres. Copyright Environmental Working Group.

Crop insurance subsidies are taking center stage during the 2012 Farm Bill debate, as drought hits farmers across the country and economists talk about $10-$15 billion in taxpayer insurance costs with some insurance recipients receiving more than $1 million in support. Direct payments are eliminated in both the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill and the House Committee on Agriculture’s bill and both versions of the bill expand crop insurance subsidies – a change that encourages farmers to plow up habitat that is valuable for species such as the swift fox.

To read more about swift fox and crop insurance, read our fact sheet.

Once abundant, swift fox now only inhabit about 60% of their former range. They rely on shortgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the Great Plains for prey and shelter. A majority of this habitat overlaps with and has been greatly impacted by cropland and other habitat conversions. Subsidies are a driving force behind this habitat loss – a report by Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Working Group shows that crop insurance subsidies contributed to the loss of more than 900,000 acres of grassland, shrubland and wetland in parts of Colorado where the swift fox is found between 2008 and 2011.

In the past, farmers plowing up native grassland or draining wetlands would be denied certain subsidy payments, including direct payments, crop insurance, disaster payments and some farm loans. These programs, “sodsaver” and “swampbuster” respectively, became important tools in the fight to stem the loss of grasslands and wetlands and are part of “conservation compliance” requirements. The idea behind conservation compliance is that farmers receiving taxpayer support must take measures to protect environmental resources that provide valuable public benefits.

The 1996 Farm Bill removed crop insurance from the list of farm payment programs that are subject to compliance provisions. Conservation compliance has been proven to protect clean water, prevent soil erosion and preserve wildlife on millions of acres of America’s farmland. As a result of a bipartisan floor amendment, the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill reestablishes the link between conservation compliance provisions and crop insurance subsidies. Unfortunately the House Agriculture Committee bill fails to do so, compounding the threats that species like the swift fox and sage grouse are already facing from habitat loss.

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10 Steps Backwards for Wildlife in the House Ag Committee Farm Bill

10 Steps Backwards for Wildlife in the House Ag Committee Farm Bill

In the early hours of the morning on Thursday, July 12th the House Committee on Agriculture passed a Farm Bill that cuts conservation while expanding insurance and price support programs that will encourage habitat destruction on lands and wetlands poorly suited to produce food for America. Here are the ten most problematic provisions in the House Committee bill.

  1. Funding Cuts for Conservation: Conservation funding has been cut by more than $6 billion, with the steepest cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program, likely resulting in at least 5 million acres of grassland, stream buffers and wetland habitat coming out of the program and going under the plow.
  2. Dedicated Funding for Wildlife Eliminated: The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, a popular and effective program, is eliminated in both the Senate and House bills but the Senate creates opportunity for wildlife funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) with a minimum 5 percent of program funding going to wildlife.  The House makes this set aside for wildlife a 5 percent maximum, meaning that many farmers with wildlife projects will likely be turned away.
  3. More Expensive Crop Insurance Subsidies: Annual taxpayer subsidies to crop insurance companies and farmers’ insurance premiums have already gone up by more than $6 billion over the last decade.  The Agriculture Committee proposes another $9 billion increase which is structured in ways that make the taxpayer bear the risk while encouraging farmers to plow fragile lands that are poorly suited to food production.
  4. Conservation Compact between Farmers and Taxpayers Destroyed:Conservation compliance’ has been a deal between farmers and taxpayers for more than 25 years.  In exchange for public support, farmers agree to modest protections for soil, water and wildlife on approximately 500 million acres of farmland.  The House Agriculture Committee chose to ignore the Senate’s extension of this compact that recent polls show has the support of the majority of farmers themselves.
  5. Modest Habitat Protections Voted Down: A limited version of conservation compliance called ‘sodsaver’ was also rejected by the Agriculture Committee despite strong support from hunters and fishermen, environmentalists, the ethanol industry and National Farmers Union.  This provision would have made farmers who plow up wetlands or the less than 1 percent of virgin prairie remaining in America ineligible for crop insurance for just five years.  Even this moderate penalty failed to pass the Committee, despite evidence that compliance provisions have been successful  and provide a net economic benefit.
  6. Reduced Support for Organic Farming: The Committee tilts an already tilted playing field further toward industrial agriculture.  It eliminates dedicated support to help farmers use less pesticide and go organic by repealing the National Organic Certification Cost Share program, reduces funding for organic research and maintains barriers that impede organic farmers’ efforts to insure their crops.
  7. Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Zeroed Out: No support is provided for renewable energy, eliminating what were highly successful programs to help capture methane emissions from dairies and feedlots, energy audits, and other programs that have helped thousands of farms reduce energy bills and fossil fuel use and switch to renewable energy sources.
  8. No Oversight of Pesticide Application into Waterways: Section 10017 of the House farm bill axes all Clean Water Act protections for pesticides that are sprayed directly into waterways.  This would result in the direct application of pesticides into streams and rivers without any oversight, as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) – the law under which pesticides are registered – does not require tracking of such pesticide applications.
  9. Blocks Protection of Endangered Species from Pesticides: Section 10016 of the House farm bill puts the interests of pesticide manufacturers ahead of the health of our wildlife and communities.  This section prescribes non-science based roadblocks and delays for measures recommended by federal wildlife experts to protect endangered species from pesticides.  This spells disaster for species already on the brink of extinction because of pesticides and other threats.
  10. Increased Logging in our National Forests: Section 8301 would give the Forest Service broad discretion to designate sweeping areas of our National Forests for expanded logging, roadbuilding and other development by exploiting the danger of wildfires and harmful pests.  Projects in these “critical areas” would be permitted to move forward with almost no environmental review or public involvement, and projects as large as 1,000 acres would not be required to have any environmental review at all. This provision would undercut public involvement and important environmental analysis that protects water and wildlife on our public lands.

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Reforming Crop Insurance Subsidies – Good News for Conservation

Reforming Crop Insurance Subsidies – Good News for Conservation

American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has some creative ideas about how to make the 2012 Farm Bill less expensive and more efficient – and in some cases, that could also make the 2012 Farm Bill better for conservation. In its recently released series on the 2012 Farm Bill called “American Boondoggle: Fixing the 2012 Farm Bill,” AEI presents ideas on everything from consolidating conservation title programs to increasing support for agricultural research and development. Perhaps one of the best ideas for reform is on crop insurance.

In his paper for AEI, “Premium Payments: Why Crop Insurance Costs Too Much,” Vincent Smith lays out the history of crop insurance in the U.S. and how a once essential program to assist Dust Bowl farmers ballooned into an average of $5.6 billion per year in government subsidies. Most consumers understand the importance of insurance to protect assets and on its face, it makes sense that farmers who depend on selling their crops and livestock for their livelihood would want to insure these assets in case of natural disaster or higher than usual losses. Unlike the types of insurance that most consumers are familiar with like auto insurance or homeowners insurance, the government subsidizes the cost of farmers’ premiums AND the expenses that insurance companies accrue in selling crop insurance policies AND the amount that companies have to pay farmers for crop losses.

Why is this important to those of who care about wildlife? Current crop insurance policies promote a food production system that has many adverse environmental impacts. Crop insurance subsidies as they exist now create incentives to farm marginal cropland, which in turn can contribute to environmental degradation associated with soil erosion and run-off. They also have been shown to promote plowing of some of America’s last native prairies.

One reform that Smith recommends is to replace the complex products offered now with weather-based insurance products that would still cover farmers’ weather-related losses but through a simpler, less expensive system. This kind of reform would also minimize incentives for “moral hazard behavior,” such as planting on marginal cropland.

Finally, although Smith doesn’t mention it in his paper, the 2012 Farm Bill should reform crop insurance to include conservation compliance provisions requiring farmers receiving crop insurance subsidies to implement practices that prevent soil erosion and minimize wetland loss.

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