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Public Health Relies on Environmental Stewardship in the Farm Bill

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This month, once again, the rubber hits the road with the farm bill. The Senate finished its version in June, and although many food security components are flawed, there were some surprisingly good results in the realm of conservation. Next week the House will begin its markup. As always, there's a lot at stake with this bill, for farmers and for consumers. But there's also a lot at stake for the air, waters, and lands--not just farmlands--that farmers and the rest of us share. And ultimately what's at stake with the farm bill is the health of every American now alive and thus of future generations.

For many years, conservationists have fought tirelessly for the farm bill to protect our natural resources through many different programs. Some of these programs provide incentives for farmers to be good stewards of the earth they till, the erodible land they protect, and the wetlands they conserve. Other programs penalize farmers for being poor stewards. For example, the Conservation Stewardship Program provides financial and technical assistance for farmers who adopt new conservation practices. And on the other end of the spectrum, the direct payments program (aka "farm subsidies") refuses payments to farmers who fail to meet certain standards when farming on land that is vulnerable to erosion. (Most people don't realize this, but the direct payments program, while criticized by many, actually does a great deal to safeguard vulnerable lands; if the program is eliminated, those conservation requirements could go out the window with the program.)

As a physician, public health researcher and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, my interest in conservation circles back to how the health of the environment affects the health of the human population. Perhaps the connection between conservation and public health isn't always obvious. One group prioritizes the preservation of healthy ecosystems, advocating on behalf of the natural environment. The other group prioritizes the health of human populations, advocating on behalf of people who are at risk or could be at risk. But these two groups are intimately linked. An ailing ecosystem puts human populations at risk, and all of us interested in human health should be on the edge of our seats watching what the House does with the bill this month. (My hunch is that the House won't be as reasonable as the Senate on this bill, but we shall see.)

Like any intimate relationship, the marriage between the natural environment and public health is complicated. The connections are too numerous to list, but I'd like to highlight a few of the most important ones. (More in-depth information is available here and here.)

Water is the stuff of life, essential to our survival and good health. But industrial farming practices routinely pollute rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater. The pollutants "run off" the farms as fertilizers, manure, herbicides, and pesticides, and they reach us through our drinking water and even our seafood, creating a web of illnesses, ranging from cancer, neurologic disorders, and "blue baby syndrome," among others. Another point with water is that we are running out of it--and industrial agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of U.S. water use. Some of the farm bill's conservation programs and requirements work to protect our waters.

Will Rogers said, "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff." I'm not a real estate expert, but as a public health advocate, I appreciate the value of land. In particular, soil is critical to our health. Good soil equals good farmland, but because of soil erosion, we're losing good farmland at an alarming rate. And the less farmland we have, the less food we can grow, even with advances in science and technology. The population is booming. If anything, we need more farmland, not less. A little known fact about soil is that it absorbs contaminants, in effect holding onto toxins such as lead and pathogens such as E. coli instead of allowing them to be transferred to plants that we eat, air that we breathe, and water that we drink. Industrial farming practices contribute to soil erosion, while some of the farm bill's conservation programs compel farmers to take care of the soil. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it well: "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself."

Last Wednesday, former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman wrote in the Huffington Post that "in this country there is a historic reverence for the farmer. America was founded as an agrarian nation of small, land holding farmers." Also last week, the National Farmers Union released a poll confirming that farmers want conservation programs and environmental stewardship to be integral parts of the farm bill. As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports, "An overwhelming 86 percent of the respondents favor at least maintaining current or increasing funding levels for conservation programs in the 2012 Farm Bill."

Dan Glickman says that we revere the farmer, and I agree. Farmers know that conservation is critical to their success in the long term, and we all know that conservation is critical to human health. This month, as the House debates the farm bill, we'll see how our representatives in Congress really feel about farmers and about human health.

In his post, Glickman quotes Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof on marriage. In that musical, there are many marriages, and I think the farm bill draws attention to many marriages: the marriage between health and the natural environment, the marriage between farmers and consumers, and the marriage between Americans and our elected officials. We need the House to be faithful to the people it represents. Let's hope that in the coming months we can say mazel tov to them for protecting our land, water, air--and human health.