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After decades of Farm Bill policy incentivizing the overproduction of commodity crops, conventional agriculture in the U.S. has taken an increasing toll on water, soil and the climate — and on farmers’ own ability to withstand extreme weather and climate disruptions. Episode Two of the Farm Bill Uprooted features IATP’s Michael Happ and the University of Iowa’s Dr. Silvia Secchi on industrial agriculture’s environmental impacts and the Conservation Title programs meant to address them.

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00:00:00 Silvia Secchi 

And so it's really sad that our Farm Bill in 2023, when we know that agriculture in this country contributes 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that agriculture is the biggest cause of water quality problems in the United States, and that our agricultural system is responsible for the greatest majority of water overuse in the West, but also in the Corn Belt in places like Nebraska and Kansas – we are still centering extractive production methods, to the detriment of the environment. It's like we've learned nothing. 

00:00:51 Lilly Richard 

From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, this is Lilly Richard, and this is Part Two of a six-part podcast series: The Farm Bill Uprooted. 

00:01:03 Lilly 

As we heard in our first episode, the Farm Bill started out in part as a way to manage agricultural production and supply, while ensuring that farmers got paid fairly. It also included programs to address soil conservation, as over-farming of soil-depleting crops like corn, wheat and cotton, had resulted in major soil erosion. But over time, big grain companies successfully lobbied to do away with the supply management program, and a combination of Farm Bill incentives and market pressure once again began to produce an oversupply of cheap commodities. Later Farm Bills began supporting farmers with subsidies when the race to the bottom resulted in market prices too low to make a living. 

00:01:49 Lilly 

But as US agriculture became more industrialized and more productive, it became clear it was causing major environmental harms, including to the soil and water. Regulation of agricultural practices and pollution has generally fallen outside of the Farm Bill’s purview, and in many cases outside of any oversight at all. Instead, the Farm Bill includes several programs under the Conservation Title that are meant to incentivize more sustainable land management and farming practices. These include the Conservation Reserve program, where farmers can get paid to take some land out of production to protect the environment, and working lands programs, where they're paid to implement different sustainability practices on their farms. 

00:02:37 Lilly 

These programs, created through the efforts of environmentalists and sustainable agriculture advocates, are incredibly important not just for reducing harms, but also for increasing resilience to help farmers better withstand the impacts of climate change like extreme heat and drought, intense rains and floods. But in some ways, they're in conflict with other Farm Bill programs. I talked to IATP's, Michael Happ, and to Dr. Silvia Secchi, a professor of geography and sustainability at the University of Iowa, about some of the impacts that our current agriculture system, especially in the Midwest, has on water and the environment and how the Farm Bill reinforces that system. We also talked about the Farm Bill conservation programs that are meant to deal with those impacts and how they're actually working. 

00:03:30 Michael Happ 

So my name is Michael Happ. I'm the program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, or IATP. 

00:03:39 Silvia 

My name is Silvia Secchi and I am a professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. My doctoral training is in natural resource economics, and so that's how I got started thinking about Farm Bill and Farm Bill issues. 

00:03:56 Michael 

As far as my engagement with Farm Bills, I have worked on, you know, this will be my third Farm Bill. A lot of what I do is focused on the intersection between federal policy, farms and conservation and climate. So a lot of my big projects are working on seeing how farmers are accessing federal conservation programs, and things that help folks pay for practices that help keep them climate resilient, and make sure they have more economic options when that's not always possible for farms. 

00:04:26 Lilly 

So how does the Farm Bill reinforce unsustainable farming systems, and why? 

00:04:33 Michael 

So I mean, there are a lot of ways, you know financially it just makes so much more sense to grow these great big fields of corn or soybeans or wheat or whatever kind of crop depending on the region of the country you're in. And on top of that, you've got this crop insurance that incentivizes that above all else, you should keep yield in mind, right? That's the main goal of agriculture is to be productive, to grow as much food as possible – or as much of these crops as possible. And as it exists right now, a lot of farmers who want to put in, for example, some sort of conservation practice, whether it's, you know, cover crops, whether it's, you know, riparian buffer is just things that improve soil health or improve water quality. They end up getting dinged by crop insurance because the way that works is, it's like, well, if you're doing anything that reduces yield at all, we'll consider that a risky thing and you won't get as good of crop insurance. Whereas in a lot of cases, farmers are doing conservation with climate in mind with risk in mind, right? They know, as the climate changes, as extreme weather gets worse and worse, they're trying to keep moisture in the soil or they're trying to be more resilient to flooding and wind. And that's how they're thinking of risk. And it's just completely the opposite of how the crop insurance system works. 

00:05:51 Silvia 

So, the environment has always been secondary in the Farm Bill. And you know, from the very beginning if you think about the way, for example, Iowa was settled, there was very little land left in public hands. There was very little respect for Native Americans, right? So you can see it is kind of like long term – I wouldn't call it an evolution, but kind of like the linkages between white settlement, these policies that are very extractive as embedded in the Farm Bill and before the Farm Bill. And this, you know, the acceleration we saw after the Second World War, with more mechanization, more separation of animals and crops, more monoculture, right? And because we're so good at growing corn, we gotta grow more corn regardless of whether there is demand. If there is no demand, we will create one with the ethanol mandate and so this is really a progression in which there has not been a real reflection on environmental impact, no consideration for climate change, the extractiveness, the destructiveness, the unsustainability of the. 

00:07:02 Lilly 

But let's rewind a little. Why is industrial monoculture agriculture or conventional agriculture, as it's known in the US, so bad for the environment? There are plenty of ways to farm and produce food that are less harmful and more sustainable. However, as we heard in our first episode, the US agriculture system has been shaped by a Farm Bill supporting the mass production of commodity crops. But farming isn't magic. All that production comes with major trade-offs. Plants – some more than others – need certain nutrients, like nitrogen, to grow. In a biodiverse ecosystem that includes plants, animals and lots of healthy microbes, nutrients naturally cycle through the plants and the soil and the air. But growing crops for harvest can disrupt that cycle and start to deplete the nutrients from the soil, so it often needs to be supplemented with some form of fertilizer. And the more you attempt to extract from a system, the more inputs you need. Growing weed free fields of a single crop – monoculture – requires pesticides and herbicides that reduce biodiversity by design, killing insects as well as diverse plant life that would have served as habitat for animals and pollinators. Tilling the soil every season and planting the same row crops year after year also leaves soil exposed and susceptible to erosion. 

00:08:31 Lilly 

Then there's the fertilizer. Crops like corn, especially the newer varieties that have been bred to maximize yield, need a lot of nitrogen to fuel their growth. Unfortunately, creating synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is an extremely energy intensive process fueled by fossil fuels. Once it's on the field, fertilizer begins to break back down into its chemical parts, releasing nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. And a lot of that fertilizer – about half – along with other inputs like pesticides, ends up running off the fields into rivers and streams when it rains or leaching into groundwater. In drinking water, nitrogen pollution can increase the risk of cancer and cause a potentially deadly disease called methemoglobinemia or blue baby syndrome. In surface waters like lakes, fertilizer runoff causes algal blooms and something called eutrophication. That happens when all of the extra nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, feed a sudden overgrowth of algae, which uses up all of the oxygen in the water and kills off most of the other plant and animal life. Famously, runoff from US agriculture along the Mississippi River corridor has caused a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an area thousands of miles across where almost no fish can survive. 

00:10:00 Lilly 

Much of that runoff causing industrial production goes toward cheap feed for concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs or factory farms, where surrounding fields also get sprayed with manure – lots of it. Since CAFOs contain a lot more animals than an integrated or pasture-based system would, they produce way more manure than the landscape can handle, and lots of it ends up in waterways. Manure is also full of water-polluting nitrates, along with pathogens and antibiotics, especially when it's coming from animals kept in confined, disease-prone conditions. 

00:10:38 Lilly 

On top of the pollution caused by intensive systems, many agricultural crops require high amounts of water to grow and in dry regions, or in times of extended drought, like what climate change is causing. That means pulling billions of gallons out of freshwater bodies or aquifers to use for irrigation. But potable fresh water, that we need to drink and sustain life, is a limited resource – and supplies are dwindling. One of the factors that helped to end the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was the discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer underneath the Great Plains. Now, almost 100 years later, Kansas is experiencing another devastating drought, and that aquifer is close to running dry. I'll let Dr. Secchi take it from here. 

00:11:27 Silvia 

We know that agriculture is the biggest cause of water quality problems in the United States and that our agricultural system is responsible for the greatest majority of water overuse in the West, but also in the Corn Belt in places like Nebraska and Kansas. We are still centering extractive production methods, to the detriment of the environment. It's like we've learned nothing. We are repeating the same mistakes. 

00:11:57 Silvia 

So this is a process that has deep roots – unlike a lot of the crops we grow these days in the corn belt! So Iowa has been the biggest producer of hogs in the United States since 1880, but the CAFO proliferation really started, again, because of all these research we did regarding mechanization of production, separation of crop and livestock that accelerated after the Second World War. And then in Iowa, as a response to the farm crisis of the 1980s, we really, as a state made a collective decision that we were going to deregulate and therefore attract more CAFOs. 

00:12:48 Silvia 

So the main thing here is that the manure that comes out of these CAFOs, because they're so big and so concentrated, and the manure is really a low value product that doesn't have the right combination of nutrients. This manure is a waste product. And so the farmers apply this manure not to substitute artificial fertilizer, but on top of it, and not necessarily appropriately. So for our water these facilities are devastating, not just because you'll have the spills and the fish kills. But because the overall management of these facilities is terrible. And on top of that, because we have so little oversight, you have things happening like, you know, they build the facility to right below the limit at which they're considered a large CAFO, and they require a permit. And then they overfill them with animals, which nobody checks. Therefore the pits, the lagoons, are full when they shouldn't be full, and so we have applications at times of the year like in the winter (which is technically illegal, but nobody checks) when we have higher risks for the water. So we have all these loopholes that exacerbate the problem and make it worse. 

00:14:15 Silvia 

And then of course we produce all of this corn. This is a system that favors simplicity over complexity. That favors external inputs over a more circular economy. And corn is really the premier crop in this respect. We also grow so much corn because we have devoted a lot of resources in terms of research, for example, and infrastructure, to growing it. And so I was not really joking when I said we're growing so much corn now that we have to invent uses for it. I mean high fructose corn syrup or feeding corn to ruminant animals, you know, or producing ethanol. Corn ethanol... we made the assertion that proved to be false, that corn ethanol was going to be a bridge technology to cellulosic ethanol that can be made using all sorts of woody materials. And we ramped up the production of corn. In the Corn Belt we used to have not exactly a mono-cropping system. We used to grow more corn and soybeans in rotation, and soybean is a legume, so you don't put nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer. Well, nitrogen, really not at all. So what happened was we went from a corn/soybean rotation in many parts of the region to a continuous corn rotation. 

00:15:37 Silvia 

So we doubled the amount of nitrogen we put down on the landscape. And these external inputs are fossil fuel intensive. So there is that connection, right? Let's never forget that nitrogen fertilizer, which is responsible for a lot of the pollution of our waterways, is really natural gas transformed. Continuous corn is also more demanding in terms of the amount of tillage that you need, so you have less residue when you're growing the corn after the corn after the corn. So you have impacts on soil erosion as well. So it was very disruptive to our ecosystems, to our water quality, it turns out to our climate because we use so much fossil fuel to produce corn that it's actually not a net benefit in terms of greenhouse gas. And it also favored and accelerated farm concentration and further specialization because the beneficiaries of these systems are conventional commodity farmers. And so it did nothing – in fact it impeded diversification at the farm level at the landscape level. If we were talking about climate, I would say this is a maladaptation. This is a false solution that actually exacerbates the problem, and the Farm Bill plays a really big role. 

00:17:00 Lilly 

So what can be done about this maladaptation as Dr. Secchi made clear, there is a desperate need for real regulation of CAFOs. But within the scope of the Farm Bill, incentives can be shifted to support more sustainable ways of farming, with the aim of producing food, not just corn and other commodities. The entire system of conventional agriculture needs to be transformed, and it can be. There are ways to farm differently, to bring biodiversity back to the farm and reduce the amount of water polluting fossil-fuel-based inputs needed to support crop growth. Things like planting prairie strips in fields or riparian buffers along waterways to reduce runoff, or well managed rotational grazing, can be steps towards less harmful, more agroecological farming systems. 

00:17:54 Lilly 

But on a playing field tilted toward industrial production, farmers need support for these kinds of farming systems: processing infrastructure, education, technical support, and financial support to transition. Two of the major programs in the Farm Bill that help fund this type of on-farm conservation are the Conservation Stewardship program, or CSP, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP. EQIP is more of an introductory program; farmers apply for contracts to fund specific environmental improvement projects on their farms. CSP is the next step; producers receive an annual payment for maintaining and improving existing conservation activities they put into place. Vitally, in the context of a rapidly-heating climate and increasing extreme weather events, these practices can also increase farm resilience. Here's Michael again. 

00:18:52 Michael 

So I'll say that, you know, as climate change intensifies, it's putting a lot of stresses on conventional agriculture. You're already operating with such tight margins, right? It's a high input, high debt sort of way of operating and when you have a business model in that vein, any sort of shock can just rock it. It's just, it's so brittle and so not resilient. 

00:19:17 Michael 

So there is this really interesting study out that came out just a few weeks ago by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri. And they looked at the cover crops. Cover crops are kind of considered this gateway conservation practice, right? It's something simple, you know, after you harvest your fall crop, you can plant, you know, winter wheat. Or you can plant clover, or anything that keeps the soil covered and living roots in the ground during the winter time and in the early spring of the next year. And they looked at fields that planted cover crops versus fields that didn't, and they looked at back in 2019. It was a very, very wet year for lots of the upper Midwest. Southwest Minnesota and eastern South Dakota got a whole bunch of rain and it prevented a lot of people from planting in the spring. However, they looked at the places where cover crops were planted. And the folks there were able to get into the field a whole lot earlier. And they didn't have to go to crop insurance and say, ‘hey, because it rained so much this year, I wasn't able to plant my crop,’ right? So just something is as simple and basic as cover crops showed that it was more resilient right? And saves the taxpayer so much money through crop insurance. 

00:20:28 Michael 

They're able to get their crop in the field, the soil is spongier water is better able to get down into the table. And and if it's just barren, as is often the case with conventional growing right, you've got this hard crust on top that the water is not able to penetrate. So all it does is pool where it goes into the ditch and it kind of overwhelms our local creeks and waterways. So yeah, cover crops are kind of this gateway practice to whole farm conservation and then a lot of folks, once they do that and they see all the benefits that has, they see well, maybe I should put in continuous living cover. Maybe I should put in a riparian buffer between the field and the stream. If I have livestock, what if I graze them on the cover crops? Or what if I put them out on the pasture? And they start working with their local USDA offices and seeing what works best for their land. And a lot of folks really, really enjoy that. And that's kind of what a lot of people have in mind when they think of farming. And yeah, a lot of people doing these conservation practices. If they're doing those sorts of nitrogen fixing crop rotations, if they're doing all these things that require less or zero synthetic fertilizer application or herbicides or or fungicides or things like that, right? They're finding that they're spending a lot less money on that. And as we've seen over the past few years, prices for all those things have gone way up. 

00:21:50 Lilly 

Voluntary conservation programs have their limits, especially in a system designed in many ways to encourage the opposite approach. But these programs are popular. Lots of farmers want to implement conservation practices on their farms, and clearly we need them to. But the programs are underfunded and oversubscribed, which means that every year a majority of farmers who apply for grants get rejected due to a lack of resources. 

00:22:20 Michael 

So we, we've put out a few reports, we call it the Closed Out series. Basically looking at how many farmers each year apply for conservation programs versus how many farmers are accepted into the programs. And in 2022, about three in four farmers who applied to EQIP and CSP were rejected. And that's, by and large, the big factor there is is a lack of funding, right? There's only so much money that goes toward these programs every year. And once the pot is up, once it's dry, they can't give out any more contracts. 

00:22:53 Lilly 

On top of the lack of funding, there are certain practices that have been snuck into the conservation programs that end up subsidizing and locking in harmful industrial systems, even including factory farms. Earlier versions of the Farm Bill had prohibited CAFOs from receiving EQIP dollars, but the 2002 bill opened the door for CAFOs and added a requirement that 50% of EQIP funds be set aside for practices related to animal agriculture. Since the vast majority of animal agriculture in the U.S. at this point falls under the factory farm model, a lot of that conservation money ends up supporting CAFOs. The industrial practices funded by equip tend to be some of the most expensive as well, with six figure contracts for things like manure lagoon covers drawn from a limited pot of money that could be going to help more farmers implement more effective conservation practices like conservation crop rotation or prescribed grazing. 

00:23:58 Michael 

So 50% of EQIP money is set aside for livestock focused practice. And that's been a huge problem, right? Because not all of that money is going toward pasture based systems that are based on the ecology of an area. A lot of that is going toward these manure lagoons and waste storage facilities and animal mortality facilities that are almost universally used by large concentrated animal feeding operations. Not environmentally focused farms at all. And again, the kind of the reasoning behind that is well, if you're going to have big farms, you have to store the waste somewhere, so it doesn't get into the waterways. But again, not having a farm of that scale in the first place would do a lot more to protect our local waterways than having it there plus a manure lagoon. 

00:24:48 Michael 

So we've, we've put out a report called Payments for Pollution and we focused on the Midwest and looked at, okay, there's all this money going to the Midwest through the Environmental Quality Incentives program. We want to make sure it's going to more farmers for actual on the ground conservation. But unfortunately north of 30% – depending on how you measure it, well north of that – of EQIP funding is going toward really industrial-scale practices that don't have an environmental benefit. A huge reason there is a a dead zone and the Gulf of Mexico today is because of things like tile drainage, where you're trying to get water off of farmland as quickly as possible and diverting it into streams and rivers and and sending it away as as soon as possible. And you have huge issues like nitrate runoff and this huge loss of wetlands and habitat. And one of the practices that is paid for through EQIP is tile drainage. And again, very few people when looking at this would call it efficient, right? If you're looking from a taxpayer perspective, cover crops cost a whole lot less than than tile drainage. 

00:25:54 Michael 

So I think the Farm Bill can be such a good tool to bring us to the food system we want to see. I think when you get farmers and rural communities and and urban communities and eaters just all together at the same table and and talk about what their needs actually are, right, we'll get a lot closer to a really climate resilient food and farm system. 

00:26:15 Lilly 

On top of reforming and fully funding the conservation programs, making the Farm Bill work better for the environment, farmers and the climate means taking a closer look at some of the other parts of the bill that continue to incentivize extractive forms of production and even punish farmers for taking a more sustainable approach. In our next episode, we'll dig into one of those areas that's not only holding back climate resilience and agriculture, but also reinforcing a history of racial discrimination and inequality that has been part of the US agriculture system from the beginning. On the next Farm Bill Uprooted, we’ll talk the Credit Title. 

00:27:07 Lilly 

If you enjoyed this podcast, please remember to subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcast platform and share the show with your friends. You can also check out our previous podcast series Uprooted: Talking COP27, in the same feed. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Works at the intersection of policy and practice to advance just, sustainable food systems. You can support our work at