On Wednesday, March 24, the full Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln's Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Her goal of providing $4.5 billion to put healthier food in the mouths of America's children is laudable. Unfortunately, her proposal breaks a promise that helped ensure passage of the 2008 farm bill. Her legislation would cap funding for conservation under the proven but underfunded Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) even as it provides less than half of the 10-year, $10 billion increase for nutrition proposed by the Obama administration.
As reported in the Delta Farm Press, staff members at the Senate Agriculture Committee are now saying that the authorization level for funding EQIP in the 2008 farm bill is "fictitious." I don't recall anyone describing conservation funding as an illusion before or directly after the farm bill passed. At the time, Sen. Lincoln herself trumpeted a "$4 billion increase for conservation programs" in a press release.
EQIP, which has been chronically underfunded and repeatedly targeted for cuts, helps farmers protect drinking water sources while protecting children's health by preserving the quality of soil and air in rural communities. The program is so popular with farmers that demand far outstrips the available funding. There were $1.3 billion in unfunded applications in 2009, according to the committee's senior Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
The Environmental Working Group took a stand 20 years ago opposing proposals to reform the commodity subsidy program by imposing payment limits and means testing with the understanding that voluntary conservation programs would be fully funded. It has become obvious, however, that when push comes to shove, conservation is only a pawn in the game of farm bill politics.
Funding levels for commodity crop subsidies in the farm bill are described as sacrosanct and proposals to cut them by so much as one penny are attacked as a betrayal. Yet conservation programs are viewed as entirely violable.
Spending on commodity programs was made palatable to many members of Congress almost entirely because of promises to fund conservation. But when no one is looking, critical programs like EQIP are being cut while commodity programs are spared. That is no way to build a solid foundation of support for farm programs from lawmakers who have often cast a skeptical eye on commodity subsidies.
In this time of record deficits, a worsening obesity epidemic among America's children and high farm income, wouldn't the equitable decision be to make reductions in commodity programs to pay for improved nutrition? If Congress is serious about fully funding nutrition initiatives, moreover, it is worth remembering that there is far more money in the commodity subsidies budget than in EQIP's limited allocation.
Instead of cutting back on EQIP's proven and less costly conservation clean water initiatives, modest trimming of crop insurance and farm subsidies could yield billions of dollars to easily fund the increases in child nutrition that Sen. Lincoln is advocating. In 2009 alone the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid out $4.8 billion in commodity crop direct subsidy payments -- more than on all USDA conservation programs that year and almost five times more than on EQIP.