03/01/2013 09:14 am ET Updated May 01, 2013

Saving the Earth, Saving Tax Dollars: The Case for Conservation Compliance

Whether they've inherited historic family farms, are setting out to grow crops for the first time, or work for massive agribusiness interests, almost all of America's farmers rely on some sort of government support. Programs exist to ensure higher commodity prices, protect farmers from economic damages due to extreme weather, encourage the production of certain crops, compensate farmers for setting aside marginal areas from farming and subsidize the purchase of farm products.

This entire subsidy regime, cobbled together in the 1930s, has long presented a significant controversy. Indeed, the two of us have different views about what the government should and shouldn't subsidize in the farm sector. But the two of us -- one a conservationist, the other a free-market activist -- do agree strongly on one thing: taxpayer funded subsidies provided by the government should not actively aid environmental destruction.

That's why we're deeply concerned that the next farm bill may delete key "conservation compliance" provisions that have withheld subsidies from farmers who do environmental damage. In a time when Congress is dealing with one fiscal crisis after another, it is unthinkable that policymakers would try to pass a farm bill that does not ensure taxpayer money is not used towards harming our natural resources and the public good.

Conservation compliance is a pretty simple program. Ever since President Reagan first signed it into law in 1985, it has made a deal with farmers: if they wish to receive subsidies, they can't use taxpayer money to destroy wetlands or farm erosion-prone land without conservation measures. Farmers that don't like these rules remain free to decline subsidies and farm in just about any way they like. They just can't rely on the taxpayers to help them do it.

The policy's attraction for taxpayers is obvious. It reduces subsidies by encouraging some farmers to opt out of the program altogether. For the overwhelming majority of farmers who receive subsidies, however, conservation compliance discourages planting in marginal, risk-prone areas and encourages responsible farming on vulnerable land. Thus, conservation compliance reduces the losses taxpayers must pay through the heavily subsidized crop insurance program.

Conservation compliance is already required for farmers participating in conservation programs or receiving subsidies through direct payments. However, in the next Farm Bill, the direct payment system will likely be replaced by crop insurance as the dominant agricultural subsidy that farmers receive. Taxpayers pay for 62 percent of the cost of crop insurance premium subsidies, on average. In return for these subsidies, farmers are currently not required to practice good stewardship of the land. Unless the next Farm Bill attaches conservation compliance to crop insurance as direct payment subsidies fade away, millions of acres of farmland could be farmed on taxpayer funded insurance without requiring any protection of the public good in return.

The total savings of conservation compliance, since the program's inception, amount to more than $1 billion. These savings more than cover the program's tiny administrative costs. And, farmers don't have many problems doing what conservation compliance asks of them. According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 98 percent of those participating did everything the program asked.

Conservation compliance also does a lot of environmental good. By most estimates, the program has saved more than 2 billion tons of soil from erosion and enormously reduced the number of wetlands converted for farming use. These gains in soil health, water quality, and wetlands have been critical to the wildlife populations that depend on these resources.

Linking conservation compliance to crop insurance is fair to taxpayers and it is the right thing to do. But behind the scenes, private negotiations have limited the reach of conservation compliance, so that farm subsidies can be paid out with no strings attached.

This can't be allowed to happen. As it restructures America's farm programs, Congress should act to require conservation compliance for anybody receiving government-subsidized crop insurance. It's simply a matter of common sense.