Report: USDA conservation programs need to focus more on climate change mitigation

Report: USDA conservation programs need to focus more on climate change mitigation

Farmers received billions of dollars from two of the largest federal agricultural conservation programs between 2017 and 2020, but only a small proportion of the money funded practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

“Essentially, what we found is that of the $7.4 billion in payments to farmers that came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, only a small portion went to climate-smart practices,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG’s Midwest director.

Schechinger said she hopes the report will spark more interest — either in Congress through the 2023 farm bill or among USDA administrators — in reforming the agency’s conservation programs. Because the Inflation Reduction Act will soon direct more money into these programs, she said, “it’s especially important now to make sure that that money’s going to these climate-smart practices instead of just business as usual.”

These findings come from EWG’s Conservation Database, which has compiled 2017–2020 payment data for five of the USDA’s conservation programs. It replaces the organization’s prior Conservation Database, which had collected data on about $40 billion in conservation funding from 1995 to 2015.

In an emailed statement, a USDA spokesperson did not specifically address EWG’s findings, referring instead to the “new tools” the agency has added to support the adoption of climate-smart agriculture, such as the $2.8 billion allocated for the new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program and $8 million to support and expand the monitoring of carbon in soil on working agricultural lands. “Since day one, the Biden-Harris administration has taken bold steps to support adoption of climate-smart agriculture and forestry through our existing voluntary conservation programs,” the spokesperson said. 

“Climate-smart” is a description the NRCS began using last year after the USDA evaluated its programs to see which ones could lower carbon emissions and/or sequester carbon. Many climate-smart practices are either part of the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or its Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). 

The Inflation Reduction Act allocates an additional $8.45 billion for EQIP, $3.25 billion for CSP, $6.75 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, $1.4 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and $1 billion for technical assistance. Some Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee have said they will not prioritize climate mitigation conservation programs over other programs.

Both EQIP and CSP pay farmers to implement such practices on their land as planting cover crops or establishing wildlife habitat. The EWG analysis found that only about a quarter of the funding from either EQIP or CSP in the 2017–2020 period went to climate-smart practices; it also showed that some of the best-funded practices actually exacerbate climate change. 

For instance, the fifth-most funded EQIP initiative, which paid out $174.2 million to farmers, went to build waste storage facilities at concentrated animal feeding operations. The waste from the thousands of animals in these facilities is transferred into open-air lagoons, accelerating the production of methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases.

EQIP did pay out more than $341 million for cover crops, which are considered a climate-smart practice. But other such practices received only a tiny amount of funding. For instance, the NRCS spent just $28,000 between 2017 and 2020 on contour buffer strips, which reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and a mere $2,000 went to support herbaceous wind barriers — rows of trees or shrubs between crop fields — which also help to limit soil erosion.

Schechinger said that it took a year of FOIA requests and other actions to get data from the USDA and that the agency had refused to provide data for EQIP and CSP practices for which there were five or fewer contracts funded in a county in a particular year. This data gap makes it impossible to get a complete picture of spending, she said, but what’s missing only underscores the dearth of funding for and low adoption rate of the USDA’s climate-smart practices and enhancements.

For example, she said, more than half of CSP contracts for climate-smart practices and enhancements — 63 out of a total of 114 — were missing from the county-level data, meaning they were implemented on fewer than six properties in any county in a particular year.

“Congress must reform these important conservation programs to make efforts to reduce agricultural emissions a top priority,” Schechinger said. “And until the USDA is more transparent, no one will be able to fully analyze how and where conservation spending is flowing to on-farm efforts that can help slow the climate catastrophe.”

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