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
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
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:
2000-2018, League of Conservation Voters Education Fund