The USDA’s Farm Bill’s Conservation Title for Climate Change
By See Woo Kim
What USDA is doing with CSP, EQIP, and CRP
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) decided to use the farm bill’s conservation title for climate change. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) will focus on solving climate change problems. The United States’ programs authorized in the farm bill’s conservation title could significantly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the US agricultural sector and help farmers adapt to a changing climate.
The farm bill’s conservation title authorizes programs that can promote reforestation and farming practices to mitigate GHG emissions. The largest of these are the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), EQIP, and CSP. CRP is a land-diversion program that pays farmers to convert cropland to sustainably managed land such as forest and grassland and keep the land in those uses for 10–15 years. EQIP provides cost sharing for implementing environmentally friendly and resource-conserving farming practices under contracts lasting five to 10 years. The CSP facilitates farms to use of resource-conserving or environmentally friendly farming practices under contracts that last five years.
However, the problem is that CRP is not being implemented with reforestation as a top priority. The bulk of acreage enrolled in the CRP is in the Great Plains and High Desert, areas with low reforestation potential. The reason why CRP acreage is located in those areas is because of the environmental benefits index (EBI), in which the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) evaluates the land’s potential environmental benefits, and its evaluations and owner-bid rental rate are added to the EBI. The parcels with the highest EBI scores are chosen for enrollment, and it is heavily weighted toward land in the Great Plains and High Desert because it depends on environmental services such as wildlife habitat, wind erosion, carbon sequestration, and water quality. This is “politically fraught,” which means completely filled with problems or risks. Reorienting the CRP toward carbon sequestration would shift acreage out of the Great Plains states and into areas where enrollment has typically been low—in other meaning, there would be less influence on the area where agriculture matters a lot.
A common criticism of the CSP–and, to a lesser extent, EQIP—is that these programs would be profitable for them to use farming practices without cost-share subsidies. In more technical terms, that line of criticism asserts that these programs’ additionality (the increase in conservation when program funds are received relative to the counterfactual of conservation with no program funds received) is low. The programs in the farm bill’s conservation title can help US agriculture deal with climate change. It would be best to change some parts of a program’s structures to make them more effective, but by itself imperfect effectiveness does not justify getting rid of them. Moreover, using those programs to deliver climate change adaptation and mitigation measures likely saves on administrative costs.