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ThinkProgress: What The New Farm Bill Means For Energy And The Environment

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

House and Senate negotiators unveiled a new five-year Farm Bill on Monday, a $956 billion piece of legislation that’s been worked on for the past two years and, if passed, will be in effect for the next five.

The House is expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday, with the Senate voting sometime after. The bipartisan bill has gained attention from some liberals for its cuts to food stamps — a program that makes up about 79 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost — and from some conservatives, who think the current bill doesn’t save enough compared to the current funding. But there’s also several energy and environmental implications in this Farm Bill, especially in the realm of conservation, which at $56 billion makes up 6 percent of the bill’s total funding.


This Farm Bill has been heralded as a win for conservationists, but it’s got some pitfalls too. The bill includes a provision pushed by groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever that allows farmers and ranchers to have to meet a “minimum standard of environmental protection” if they want to receive federal crop insurance on wetlands and other sensitive land. The Farm Bill also tries to discourage farmers from converting native grasslands to farmland by limiting crop insurance subsidies for the first few years for newly converted land.

But the bill also cuts about $6 billion from conservation over the next ten years by consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13. It’s also expected to deliver a blow to native wildlife by lowering the maximum number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million to 24 million acres. Under the program, farmers convert some of their land back into grasslands, which can serve as crucial nesting habitat for animals like pheasants and ducks.

Renewable Energy

The Energy Title in this year’s bill provides $881 million over ten years for energy programs like the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which provides funding to farmers who are working to develop new biofuels from non-food sources. The Biorefinery Assistance Program also provides funding to projects working on advanced biofuels, and the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) funds wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and biogas, and since 2008 has provided funding to projects that in all have produced enough energy to power 680,000 U.S. homes each year. Andy Olsen, Senior Policy Advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said that “while the overall Energy Title funding has been reduced, this compromise provides the certainty for renewed growth in rural energy projects under both REAP and BCAP.”

The Environment and Agriculture

The Farm Bill is shifting away from direct payments to farmers for owning farmland, instead funding more crop insurance. As NPR reports, crop insurance payments rely heavily on the weather, so if the weather over the next five years is good, the crop insurance program won’t have to pay farmers very much. But in times of drought, heavy rains or colder-than-usual temperatures, crop insurance amounts spike — meaning the effects of climate change could greatly increase the amount the government pays on crop insurance over the next five years.

As E&E Publishing reports, the bill dropped a provision that would have funded research into protecting pollinators such as honey bees, whose numbers have plummeted in the U.S. (andaround the world). Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) wasn’t happy when he heard that the provision wouldn’t be included in the current bill: “If we don’t have pollinators, we don’t have any food.”

The bill also doesn’t include an amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) that would have undermined animal welfare laws in California. In California, a law called Proposition 2 requires calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be housed in cages and pens where they’re able to lie down, stand up, turn around and extend their limbs. These requirementsapply to eggs that are produced in other states but sold in California, but King’s amendment would have prohibited these sort of requirements created in one state and applied to other states. With the King Amendment dropped from the current Farm Bill, California’s welfare laws appear safe.