Environmental Protections in Play Amid Farm Bill Furor

May 23, 2018

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A proposed farm bill would allow new pesticides to be registered without finalizing rules to protect farmworkers or considering impacts on endangered species, would block stricter local pesticide ordinances and would allow spraying directly into waterways without a Clean Water Act permit.  Above, pesticide application at a research farm in Tifton, Ga. Photo: UGA College of Agriculture, Flickr Creative Commons

Backgrounder: Environmental Protections in Play Amid Farm Bill Furor

By Joseph A. Davis

A farm bill drama is unfolding in the U.S. Congress, and while there are many concerns at stake, environmental issues will ultimately be a key piece of the legislation.  

We’ve got a rundown of six big ones below, ranging from pesticides to land preservation, animal welfare to organic food standards.

But first, a little background and an inside look at the politics.

Traditionally, Congress assembles a farm bill every five years — although the deadline has slipped in recent years as partisanship and deadlock have grown. One driver is that many important programs expire. Another is politics: The bill is seen as essential both in farm states and urban areas. The current one, passed in 2014, expires in October 2018.

The biggest issues usually involve crop subsidies. But this year, the food stamps program may be the biggest bone of contention.

Fracas over food stamps

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps ensure that people with low incomes get to eat — and dollarwise, it is the biggest component of the farm bill.

Rural low-income people benefit from it, of course, but in the past it has ensured more votes for the farm bill in Congress from urban states, where the largest numbers of low-income people live.

The food aid program began after the Depression as an effort to stabilize commodity prices, and farmers over the decades supported it for that reason. Although that is less true today, many farmers still support SNAP.


Farmers want a farm bill. But getting a bad one

done before the November 2018 elections

might hurt Republicans more than it would help.


Food stamps are currently used by more than 40 million Americans. Under current law, the SNAP program already has work requirements — but the farm bill crafted by Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) would make them stricter (may require subscription).

Under the House bill, able-bodied adults between 18 and 59 would need to work part-time or enroll for 20 hours a week in work training to be eligible for food stamps. The bill allocates about $1 billion a year for the training. The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would remove SNAP benefits for about 1 million people (may require subscription) over 10 years. The tighter work requirements reflect Trump administration policies.

The House Agriculture Committee approved what may be a first draft of the farm bill (HR 2) on April 18, by a 26-20 vote along straight party lines. Conservatives loved the work requirement for food stamp recipients, while Democrats opposed it.

Such partisanship is unusual; farm bills usually gain strength from bipartisanship or near-consensus — that is, something for (almost) everybody.

So the controversial SNAP work requirement has turned the House farm bill into a partisan and ideological litmus test. Republicans may be able to pass it in the House without any Democrat votes, but the prognosis is much poorer in the closely divided Senate.

Other political problems with the bill

GOPers can’t yet be sure they have the votes to pass the farm bill in the House. Trump and GOP Congressfolk were elected in many cases by rural and agricultural constituencies. But those voters have grown restless since Trump’s trade war and tariff barrage started to threaten farm commodities. And there are plenty of rural poor who rely on food stamps.

Farmers want a farm bill. But getting a bad one done before the November 2018 elections might hurt Republicans more than it would help.

And there has been additional drama; on May 18, the “Republican-controlled” House rejected a GOP farm bill (may require subscription), largely because of a conservative revolt over unrelated immigration legislation. A re-vote is expected.

At this moment, the $956-billion farm bill could again surface on the floor of the full House of Representatives. A lot is riding on the outcome, but the outcome is as yet unknown. The action may show that the farm bill’s fate depends on controversies having little to do with farms.

The House made several dozen amendments to the farm bill before trying to pass it. If the House does take it up again, it is unclear what further amendments may be adopted.

Whatever the House does, it is still early. The Senate has other ideas. It may produce its own bipartisan bill.

Environmental concerns also loom large

With that background, here’s our rundown of some of the major environment-related issues in the farm bill.

Pesticides. The nation’s main pesticide law is administered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, rather than U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. But farmers apply most of the pesticides and thus weigh in heavily against many controls. The House farm bill does legislate on pesticides.

The biggest item in the bill would authorize EPA to approve (or “register”) new pesticides without considering their possible impact on endangered species, as it must under current law. Right now, EPA must consult with wildlife agencies on this.


One key pesticide at issue is chlorpyrifos,

which EPA boss Scott Pruitt is accused of

approving against scientists’ advice.


Why does it matter? Pesticides already in use are known to harm various fish and wildlife (e.g., neonicotinoids harm bees and rotenone kills fish). One key pesticide at issue is chlorpyrifos, which EPA boss Scott Pruitt is accused of approving against scientists’ advice (may require subscription) after Dow donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural. Dow feared the results of a National Marine Fisheries Service study on chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion.

The House bill’s language would make those worries go away. Environmental groups oppose the provision.

Another provision in the House bill would block local governments from enforcing pesticide ordinances more strict than those set by the state. Yet another would allow farmers to spray pesticides directly into waterways, including drinking water sources, without getting a Clean Water Act permit. Another allows pesticides to be approved without finalizing rules to protect farmworkers and farmers. Another weakens restrictions on the fumigant methyl bromide, which depletes the ozone layer.

Land and Water Conservation. USDA’s engagement in land and water conservation goes back at least to the Dust Bowl days. Today, the USDA helps farmers technically and financially through many programs of agencies like its Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Originally, conservation meant things like contour plowing or encouraging cover crops to replenish soil or keep it from blowing away. Or establishing a farm pond to improve drought resiliency.

This is an environmental issue: when wind and water erode soil, nutrients and pesticides end up where they shouldn’t be — like the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Conservation can enhance habitat for migratory birds and other desirable wildlife.

Spoiler: When land is taken out of production, it not only saves soil but also props up crop prices. Farmers don’t like regulation, so Congress and USDA offer various forms of payment to conserve land and water.

Both farmers and environmentalists tend to like the conservation programs in the farm bill. They are so popular that there is rarely enough money to fully fund them. Conservation funding levels are key — set not only in the farm bill but in appropriations as well.

Watch the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The House farm bill cuts some of these programs, especially the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Farmland Preservation. There is a finite amount of farmland in the United States, and every year more of it is diverted to other uses. The dollar value of farmland has gone up, and as farmers retire, there is a strong motive to sell the land for residential or industrial development.

Of course, preserving the land for agriculture helps ensure the nation can feed itself (and much of the world). But farmland is also valuable for wildlife habitat, aquifer recharge and other environmental purposes.

Some states try to slow the loss of farmland by means of tax assessments. Others use conservation easements and land trusts. The federal USDA has programs like the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP.

The House farm bill sets a $500 million annual funding level for ACEP, which the American Farmland Trust, an advocacy group, supports. So does the Land Trust Alliance.

Animal Welfare. Whether or not animal welfare is properly an “environmental” issue, it is surely an issue that will come up on the farm bill. The large-scale production of food animals raises multiple animal welfare issues — and thus controversy and legislative conflict.


If you have ever lived downwind of a

cattle feedlot, or downstream of a pig farm,

you know that air and water quality issues are real.


These issues are real in themselves, but they also become surrogates for other debates on “factory farming.” Large-scale animal agriculture is indeed an environmental issue, in a number of ways — not all of which will be addressed in the farm bill.

If you have ever been inside a large chicken house, you know there can be cruelty and food safety issues. If you have ever lived downwind of a cattle feedlot, or downstream of a pig farm, you know that air and water quality issues are real. Pollution issues are handled by EPA and the states, rather than USDA, to the extent that they are handled at all.

The list of animal welfare issues likely to come up is not short. “Puppy mills” are an example. Some states have limited pet shop sales from dog breeders; the farm bill could outlaw those laws. Such language could be added by amendment on the House floor.

Controversy currently rages as well over animal welfare provisions in the USDA Organic standards, and those, too, could be in play. California currently outlaws certain cramped cages for laying hens, while federal law does not. An amendment threatened by Rep. Steve King (R-La.) would preempt more restrictive state and local laws. The Humane Society wants an amendment to outlaw horse soring — hurting animals to make certain gaits.

Organic Food Standards. For years, so-called “organic” food and agriculture were a fringe alternative to mainstream industrial agriculture, and farms were certified by private third parties. Organic meant a cluster of sometimes ideological desiderata. Congress in 1990 ordered USDA to set up an organic program, and in 2000 the agency set the “USDA Organic” standard.

Today, organic is big business, worth tens of billions of dollars. Whatever the other merits of the standard, it may still be the surest way to minimize or eliminate pesticide residues in food.

The House farm bill would change the organic program in ways that food purists do not like. The bill would reshape the National Organic Standards Board, a citizen body that oversees USDA organic regs. Purists worry that changes in the bill would give agribusiness seats on the board and allow the Agriculture Secretary to bypass the board in deciding which substances can be used in organic agriculture.

Forest Land. As far as the federal government is concerned, forestry is a form of agriculture. The U.S. Forest Service, at least, is housed within the USDA and its programs are often authorized via the farm bill. Especially in the Southeast, timber is often grown on private lands.

The House farm bill includes a provision to promote forest restoration across boundaries when catastrophes like wildfire, insects or disease cause devastation (the Landscape Scale Restoration Program). Conservation groups, however, criticize provisions in the bill they say would undermine the “roadless rule,” which protects pristine National Forest areas.

Among other provisions environmentalists don’t like is one limiting environmental reviews of fuel reduction projects.

Some resources for tracking the story

  • American Farm Bureau Federation: The hardcore voice of mainstream agriculture and agribusiness.
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: National organization that advocates for sustainable agriculture.
  • Land Trust Alliance: National federation of groups promoting farmland preservation and land and water conservation.
  • Beyond Pesticides: Longstanding national group that advocates for safe use or elimination of pesticides.
  • National Association of State Foresters: National umbrella for state foresters that advocates positions on the current farm bill.
  • Environmental Working Group: Environmental advocacy group that has been engaged in several farm bill issues, including agricultural subsidies and pesticides.
  • Food & Environment Reporting Network: Independent nonprofit media entity that covers many issues related to the farm bill. Some of its content is behind a paywall.
  • Civil Eats: Nonprofit journalism outlet that covers many aspects of the intersection between agriculture, food and environmental health.
  • Agri-Pulse: Independent trade news outlet that covers most aspects of agriculture. Much of its content requires no subscription.
  • DTN Progressive Farmer: General agriculture publication is mostly open. Of special value is the Ag Policy Blog by Chris Clayton.
  • AgWeb/Farm Journal: General ag news publication that is available online, usually without subscription.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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