Agriculture Policy & Farm Bill Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service

Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Conservation and Environment

Jeffrey A. Zinn

Agricultural activities have been associated with environmental problems both on the farm and across the landscape. Among these are soil erosion and sedimentation, destruction of habitat and wetlands, water supply decline and increased water pollution (especially phosphorus and nitrogen build-up from fertilizer and animal wastes), and air pollution. The farm community claims that they are good stewards of the land and that most problems are not significant enough to demand greater regulation or mandates on agriculture. The environmental community, however, believes that greater regulation and intervention are warranted in a growing number of instances. In particular, they contend that changes in the structure of agriculture, with increasingly large farm operations (including livestock) and growing concentration, are expanding the scale of environmental problems. In the past, Congress has recognized that agriculture is different from other economic sectors, and has made it largely exempt from major environmental laws.

The House and Senate agriculture committees tend to reflect farm interests and have molded policies that rely on production-friendly practices, such as land retirement, financial incentives, and technical support for conservation, and voluntary environmental safeguards. The programs that are used to implement these policies - many of which are scheduled to expire by the end of 2001- are expected to be part of debates when the Congress reviews the conservation provisions of the 1996 farm law. Supporters of agriculture can be expected to offer proposals in the farm bill based on traditional conservation policies to counter other proposals that advocate broader application of environmental laws to agriculture and would be considered by other committees in other legislation. Among the questions likely to be considered are whether:

In addition, farm bills have sometimes addressed forest conservation issues, particularly for private forest lands. This could be done in a conservation title or in a separate forestry title (as was done in 1990). All but one of the many technical and financial assistance and research programs are permanently authorized; the Forestry Incentives Program expires at the end of FY2002. Nonetheless, the farm bill might address various issues that can affect private forests, including wildfire protection and forest health; the expanding wildland-urban interface; noxious weeds and exotic pests; certification of sustainable forest production; carbon sequestration in forests; and more.

In Congress

Comprehensive agricultural conservation proposals are anticipated, including those that might be considered for inclusion in a conservation title of a new farm bill. Witnesses at Senate Agriculture Committee hearings on February 28 and March 1, 2001, presented ideas about the future of conservation policy, including funding needs, new initiatives, and amendments to existing programs. However, all the conservation-related legislation that has been introduced to date addresses specific issues.

CRS Products

CRS Issue Brief IB96030, Soil and Water Conservation Issues.
CRS Report RL30331(pdf), Conservation Spending in Agriculture: Trends and Implications.
CRS Report RL30437(pdf), Water Quality Incentives and Agriculture.

Page last updated March 28, 2001.

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