Government finds Farm Bill conservation practices at costly cross purpose

Government finds Farm Bill conservation practices at costly cross purpose

A recent assessment by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed that federal farm subsidy payments are contributing to the conversion of native grasslands to croplands, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. To assess the impact that the Sodbuster provision of recent Farm Bills has had on limiting grassland conversions, the GAO examined the extent of grassland conversions to cropland, the cost of farm program payments for these newly converted cropland acres and the relative importance of farm-program payments compared with other factors in producers' decisions to convert grassland to cropland.

The GAO estimated that about half of the nation's original grasslands have been converted to other uses, primarily crop production. Much of this has occurred in the past two and a half decades. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Inventory, nearly 25 million acres of privately owned grasslands were lost between 1982 and 2003. The Sodbuster conservation provision was in place in Farm Bills for the bulk of that period. The GAO report pointed out that much of the native grassland converted in recent years is not highly erodible, so it was not subject to Sodbuster.

The GAO noted that while recent near-record crop prices and advances in genetically engineered seed, which allow farmers to produce crops on land that was formerly unsuitable for cropping, are contributing to the loss of grasslands?farm-program payments also are an important factor in producers' decisions to convert grasslands to croplands. The report indicated that crop insurance and crop disaster-assistance payments are prime motivating factors for producers to expand their crop base because they lower the risk of negative returns in years with low crop yields.

The GAO also observed that various provisions of the Farm Bill are working at cross purposes. For example, crop insurance and disaster payments motivate producers to convert grasslands to crops while the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides a mechanism for producers to convert cropland to grassland. It used South Dakota as an example; from 1982 to 1997, 1.69 million acres of cropland were converted to grasslands through enrollment in CRP, and 1.82 million acres of native grassland were converted to crops.

Subversion of the intent of Farm Bill conservation provisions is of concern for the amount of money spent and for the loss of native grasslands on which many species of wildlife depend.

The full GAO report can be viewed at

October 07, 2007