Murphy: Short-Term Strategies Don’t Work

We Americans have developed a really bad habit: We seemingly only care about what’s in front of us this moment, how the immediate fallout from policies or regulations affects our status right here, right now, today. Forget about tomorrow.

In healthcare, we invest extraordinary sums of money in what physicians define as tertiary treatment — highly specialized (and extremely expensive) medical and surgical procedures to treat pathologies, often at the end stage of a disease, when palliative care is the only option.

Prevention of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and even cancer? Sure, we pay lip service to getting regular check-ups and health screenings, along with adopting “a balanced diet” and participating in “regular exercise.” But despite all the happy talk about such basic wellness initiatives, the funding flows to support surgical solutions, research pharmaceutical treatments and develop high-tech medical equipment to sustain people already suffering from poor health.

In education, we constantly slash state and local K-12 operating budgets, while dialing back public-sector funding for higher ed. Additional counselors, reading specialists, tutoring programs, advanced classroom technology? Who can afford any of that?

Yet we willingly fork over enormous amounts of taxpayer funding for law enforcement efforts, criminal justice courts and a massive prison system to deal with crimes often committed by young people who’ve dropped out of underfunded schools and are now unemployable.

That’s bad enough, but now we’re taking a short-term approach to the environment, and more importantly, to agriculture sustainability.

Widespread Opposition
The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 — the farm bill — now before Congress includes significant budget cutting. The Trump administration has proposed slashing $4.7 billion (21%) from USDA’s FY 2019 budget, cuts that will come from discretionary spending on nutrition programs, food-safety initiatives, rural development, international food aid and on-farm conservation programs.

The broad-spectrum attack on these program areas has angered a wide cross-section of interest groups:

  • The National Parks Conservation Association (among others) argued that the bill is “replete with provisions that undermine bedrock environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Roadless Area Conservation Rule” and would “cause irreparable harm to our federal forests, the millions of Americans who depend on them for clean drinking water, subsistence, recreation, and economic benefit.”
  • The School Nutrition Association warned that a Congressional Budget Office analysis estimated the bill would cut off 400,000 households from SNAP (food stamp) assistance, due to tighter eligibility requirements, as well as deny access to free school meals to another 265,000 children.
  • Perhaps most notably, a group known as The Conversation US, a collection of journalists working to deliver news and information to the public from academic and research communities, noted that President Trump’s FY 2019 budget request would “undo the gains from conservation efforts on farms and ranches” by “slashing funding for on-farm conservation programs.”

That’s unconscionable in the wake of massive additional military spending, funded on the federal credit card, let’s not forget, debt that we’ll be repaying — with interest — for decades to come.

Much of the impetus to reduce farmland conservation funding comes from conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation. In its “Blueprint for a Balanced Budget” white paper (from 2016), the organization stated that, “Private landowners, not government, are the best stewards of property. If necessary, they can seek private solutions to conservation challenges.”

They’re right that farmers and ranchers make the best (potential) stewards of the land. But the view that they could go to the private sector for funding is laughably inaccurate.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted in its statement on the 2019 farm bill that, “Private-sector engagement in conservation planning is very limited and could not possibly fill the gap left … if [federal] funding were cut significantly.”

Plus, the argument that taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize conservation on private land ignores the reality that the assets being conserved impact far more than the individual landowner.

When runoff or soil erosion fouls waterways, the pollution doesn’t stay on the owner’s property; it flows downstream, affecting all users of that resources. When poor management practices degrade farm fields, pastures or grazing lands, it’s not just the rancher or grower who suffers; broadly speaking, our national food productivity and security are negatively impacted.

Equally important, publicly funded conservation not only benefits the national interest in clean water, healthy soil and thriving grasslands, its continuation is essential to maintain those benefits.

A recent report from USDA’s Agriculture Economic Research Service analyzed so-called “persistence” in continuing conservations practices once term limits on individual benefits are reached. The report noted that, “The ultimate goal of transition incentive payments … is to encourage … conservation management practices for the long run. When a short‐term payment leverages a long‐term change in practices, the environmental benefits can be much larger than if the practice is dropped when the payments end.”

A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology estimated that the persistence of conservation management practices — tilling practices, rotational grazing, farm field set-asides — dropped to less than 50% when financial incentives ended.

Slashing funds for conservation on farms and ranches is the classic short-term answer to an immediate problem — a budget “crisis.” However, the reductions ensure that such projects will not only be severely scaled back, but many of the current improvements will cease once the incentives disappear.

It’s a bad idea for the present, and a horrible choice for the future of American farmers and ranchers.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

 

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