USDA: Rip Up Conservation Lands or Protect the Environment?

Lisa MooreThis post is by Lisa Moore, Ph.D., a scientist in the Climate and Air program at Environmental Defense Fund. You can meet Lisa at the Netroots Nation conference, July 17-20.

Congress and producer groups are pressuring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to release millions of acres from Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts and open them up to crop production. Supporters say this move would increase production and bring down food prices.

Wrong! Ripping up conservation lands would not make a big dent in commodity supplies or prices, but it would waste billions of taxpayer dollars that have been invested in conservation on these lands.

It also would be a tragedy for wildlife, water quality, and climate.

There are approximately 35 million acres protected under CRP, about the size of the state of Iowa. The program rewards farmers who take land out of production and use it to restore valuable ecosystems. Landowners who back out of their contracts early must reimburse the government for the payments they have already received, and pay an additional penalty.

Now the USDA is considering waiving these costs for up to 24 million acres, allowing farmers to bail out early on their contracts and plant row crops on this land.

As croplands, these fragile areas are marginal at best, and typically have yields that are half what you could get on good cropland. Why do you think they were taken out of production in the first place?

But as restored wetlands, forests, and grasslands, they are tremendously valuable. They decrease erosion, improve water quality, store carbon, and provide critical habitat for declining grassland birds and waterfowl. In fact, the CRP is sometimes called a "duck factory".

Ripping up CRP land to plant row crops would have devastating effects:

  • Expose tons of soil to wash or blow away
  • Increase greenhouse gas emissions
  • Destroy valuable wildlife habitat
  • Potentially worsen future flooding

Last week, 15 conservation groups, led by Environmental Defense Fund, sent a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture, urging him to protect this critical conservation program. Let’s hope he does the right thing.

Thanks to Britt Lundgren, agriculture policy expert at EDF, for her input into this article.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 17, 2008 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Comment from a reader sent in email:


    You know that it seems to me that the powers that be donot seem to give a rats ass and that they will not be happy until every bit of green space is covered in cement. Luckily there is one rule or law that says for every parcel of land, 50% must be green. They do not always adhere to it but it is a start. If you were to ask the canidates that are runing for office about it, they would lie through their teeth and tell you some kind of BS. They would only be campign promises and I think that everyone with an once of brains in their heads would recognize that fact. Now ask the present administration, I bet they would give you even bigger lode of crap. I am very concerned about the fact of what we as citizens will leave to our childrens an what we are teaching them. I have this very good gut feeling that we will be leaving them a lode of crap to deal with unless we do something about the problems now. There are an awful lot of alternative evengy sources out there and no one seem to care. Some one shoudl take a good size baseball bat and go and knock some sence into the powers that be. Trouble is they will not be around to see the mess that they have left us.

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