Right now, our federal crop insurance program only protects farmers from being wiped out financially from extreme weather. Farmers need that protection, but the rest of us—the eaters—also need a secure, reliable food system.
Today, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hear arguments to expand the federal crop insurance program in the 2012 Farm Bill. Most likely, proponents of this expansion will point to the devastating crop losses wrought by extreme weather last year. Indemnity payouts for 2011 have so far cost taxpayers a record $10 billion, a number expected to grow as claims are processed.
Crop insurance proponents are right: Farming is getting riskier all the time. Last year we saw more extreme storms, more record heat, more droughts and more floods than in almost any previous year. According to climatologists, it’s a pattern that’s only going to get worse as the effects of climate change grow. Right now, our federal crop insurance program only protects farmers from being wiped out financially from extreme weather. Farmers need that protection, but the rest of us—the eaters—also need a secure, reliable food system.
There are ways to make agriculture more resilient to extreme weather. Farmers can plant more perennial crops, which require less water and hold on better to soil during floods. In drought-prone regions, they can select drought-tolerant crop varieties or change grazing or irrigation methods, among other strategies. Farming techniques that protect and enhance the soil, and use less water and energy, are those that stand the best chance of holding on when the weather turns bad.
Right now, there are no requirements for farmers receiving subsidized crop insurance to comply with even the most minimal conservation measures that would help keep topsoil from washing away during floods. They are not required, or even encouraged, to adopt farming practices that might help them avoid losing fields of food when extreme weather hits, putting the food supply, and taxpayers' pocketbooks, at risk. There is currently no limit on how much the federal government can spend on crop insurance payouts, and none proposed if insurance programs are expanded.
It’s time to strike a bargain with America’s farmers. We value their livelihoods, and that’s why we’re willing to spend billions annually to subsidize the federal crop insurance system. In return, we should ask them to do everything they can to make sure our food supply stays secure as extreme weather increases. We should create “climate insurance” for agriculture, by requiring that farmers enrolled in subsidized crop insurance programs are working to make their farms more resilient to climate change.
This could be done by creating climate adaptation plans in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and farmers could get funding to create and implement these plans through existing programs in the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Farmers have always been at the mercy of the weather, which is why the federal government has offered subsidized crop insurance since the late 1930s. This kind of income insurance is critical to help keep farmers on the land, but our food supply needs insurance, too.
We can’t know what 2012 will bring for farmers weather-wise, but if the lack of winter snow cover and recent spate of tornados are an indication, this year could also prove to be a risky one for agriculture. If we value our food supply, we need act now to couple crop insurance with "climate insurance" to make sure that in the wake of the next round of floods and droughts, our food is safe, and so are our farmers.