American agriculture feeds our nation and much of the world - but at a huge environmental cost. Each year, agricultural activities cause the loss of billions of tons of topsoil, not to mention billions of pounds of pesticides and other chemicals are leached into the environment. Land conversion to agriculture also reduces fish and wildlife habitat. In order to address these issues, Congress every five years reviews and revises its agricultural policy - known as the "Farm Bill." Previous Farm Bills have attempted to address the impacts of agriculture on the environment through such means as limiting crop growing on highly erodible lands and placing restrictions on the conversion of wetlands for agriculture purposes. Currently, U.S. federal agriculture policy is governed by the 1996 Farm Bill.

Environmentalists strongly supported passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, which included the reauthorization of the following highly successful conservation programs:

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): The Conservation Reserve Program allows farmers to retire 36.4 million acres of land from crop production, saving 700 million tons of topsoil on an annual basis. The 1996 Farm Act extended this program through 2002.

Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP): In addition to CRP, the 1996 Farm Bill re-authorized the Wetlands Reserve Program. This voluntary, incentive-based program encourages farmers to enroll wetlands into protective easements.

Swampbuster and Sodbuster: The 1996 Farm Bill continued the Swampbuster and Sodbuster programs, which prohibit farmers who receive federal subsidies from converting wetlands and highly erodible lands into croplands. The combination of WRP, Swampbuster and the enrollment of wetlands in CRP decreased the destruction of wetlands for agricultural purposes from 157,000 acres per year to 31,000 acres per year over the past five years.

In addition to reauthorizing important conservation programs, the 1996 Farm Bill also created several new programs to address environmental problems associated with agricultural production. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) allows livestock farmers to reduce animal waste-related polluted run-off, while the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) provides incentive payments to encourage farmers to improve wildlife habitat. Lastly, the Flood Risk Reduction Program (FRRP) pays farmers to retire land where frequent flooding occurs.

The "Freedom to Farm Act" of 1996 ended 60 years of Depression-era agricultural subsidies that mandated the type and amount of crops farmers could plant in order to qualify for government payments. Designed primarily to steer farmers away from government supports, the Act gives farmers the flexibility to make planting decisions based on market demand, while receiving a declining amount of subsidies over a seven-year period from 1996 to 2003. Overall the law continues to draw praise from farmers and environmentalists, but some officials believe it does not go far enough in terms of helping farmers and ranchers cope with crisis situations.

Federal and state environmental regulations are failing to keep up with the rapid growth of factory farms and their resulting pollution. Serious water pollution problems - such as contaminated drinking water, massive fish kills and large algae blooms - in at least 30 states have been linked to inadequate pollution control and lax enforcement of environmental regulations. For example, the rapidly growing poultry industry on the Eastern Shore of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia is one of the main sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and other area waterways. In North Carolina, "hogs now outnumber [the state's] citizens and produce more fecal waste than all the people in California," according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For more information on agriculture issues and what you can do to help, check out these Web sites:



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© 2000-2018, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund