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Friday, July 08, 2011
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YCELP Q&A: Chris Clayton

By Susanne Stahl

A few weeks ago, the House passed the 2012 agriculture appropriations bill, which cut $2.7 billion from the previous year’s level, including $760 million from conservation programs, $686 million from the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and $354 million from research; the House also passed an amendment that prohibits USDA from spending money to implement climate change adaption planning into its programs and policies.

The appropriations bill – and the debate surrounding it – offer an interesting preview of the 2012 Farm Bill discussion. The farm bill funds a variety of programs including conservation programs, nutrition programs, rural development, crop insurance, and crop subsidies. The legislation is reauthorized every five years, allowing lawmakers the chance to review and revise programs. With such disparate interests competing for a portion of what is sure to be a much smaller pot of money, something will have to give.

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy visited with Chris Clayton, ag policy editor at DTN/The Progressive Farmer, for some perspective on this and other ag policy issues.

YCELP: What do you think will happen with conservation spending in the next farm bill?

CLAYTON: We’re going to have some real challenges in the 2012 Farm Bill for conservation spending. You have 17 conservation programs, all of them have different constituencies or groups -- some of them are overextended, which means more people want to sign up for them every year than there’s money for them. But they’re all going to face cuts in this next farm bill, and that’s going to affect the ability for farmers to address issues such as erosion and nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterways. If you don’t have the funding through conservation programs, if the incentives from the conservation title of the farm bill are taken away, then you talk about maybe actual regulations stepping in and filling the void.

For a full list of USDA’s conservation programs, visit USDA's website here.

YCELP: How will producers compensate?

CLAYTON: It’s going to become a more complicated matter because these issues -- whether it’s water, air, or climate -- aren’t going to go away, but the funding is going to be more difficult, and we’ll have to start thinking in different ways of providing incentives for farmers to do these things environmentally -- or your just going to hear constant kicking and screaming about EPA because they could very well be regulated through the courts or rules and regulations and not have real incentive programs to help them reduce runoff and protect the soil. It’s going to be real difficult moneywise in this next farm bill.

But the problem I think is it also requires people to think outside the box a little more than they want to. I don’t think it’s necessarily a lack of money, it’s a lack of thinking outside the box -- what can we do differently and achieve the same results.

YCELP: Is climate change a concern that producer and farm groups are discussing?

CLAYTON: Some groups and people are talking about it quite a bit. 

If you look at the issues that agriculture has to address in conservation -- nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in the waterways being a key one -- all of these things are interrelated and can be addressed by the same type of conservation practices. We have to figure out ways to mitigate and adapt, but if you are putting in cover crops or double cropping over the winter you’re also reducing the potential of erosion; you’re also reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the waterways, you’re also potentially getting a second biomass crop that can be used for energy or a second feed crop that can be used for livestock.

And despite the rebuke from the House of Representatives (regarding funding for climate change adaptation planning), USDA continues to emphasize research on how farmers and livestock producers can deal with extensive production challenges stemming from climate change. USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced 13 grants totaling more than $53 million to study ways agriculture and forestry can adapt to climate change and take advantage of variable climate patterns. These grants carry forward a series of climate-related projects USDA began rolling out last February that includes three separate $20-million grants for five-year studies on how climate change will affect corn in the Midwest, forests in the Southeast and wheat in the Northwest.

For more on this topic, see Chris Clayton’s recent post House Says USDA Can't Adapt to Climate Change and his article Climate Keeps USDA Adapting.

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