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WWF Says Farm Bill Is Missed Opportunity, May Negatively Impact Native Grasslands

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2008 – A $300 billion five-year Farm Bill that cleared Congress today contains much-welcomed environmental provisions, but also creates risk to native grasslands, leaves conservation programs under-funded and misses an opportunity to reform the government’s outdated farm subsidy system, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“There’s good news and bad news in this Farm Bill,” said Curt Freese, managing director of WWF’s Northern Great Plains Program.  “The good news is the bill increases investment in conservation efforts by $4 billion and reauthorizes important conservation programs such as the Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program. The bad news is that the permanent disaster fund and other Farm Bill subsidies – combined with record-high commodity prices and mandates for corn ethanol production – will incentivize conversion of ecologically fragile grasslands to croplands.” 

The Northern Great Plains, where WWF works to restore prairielands and habitat for endangered species like the black-footed ferret, is losing over 250,000 acres a year as a result of grassland conversion. A strong “sodsaver” provision – contained in both the original House- and Senate-passed bills – which would have created a disincentive to convert grasslands to crops by eliminating certain subsidies, was dramatically weakened in the final bill, said Freese.

Freese added that the legislation, H.R. 2419, continues to underfund key conservation programs.  He noted that over the five-year term of the previous Farm Bill, $13.5 billion in conservation projects, requested by nearly half a million farmers, went unfunded.  “The problem will only be exacerbated with rising prices for commodities, which are leading many farmers to remove lands currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and other conservation programs – a problem not confronted by the bill.”    

Jason Clay, senior vice president of WWF’s Market Transformation Initiative also expressed regret over relative lack of reform in the farm subsidy system.  While the bill imposes income caps for fixed, direct payments to farmers and ranchers, the caps exceed the limits sought by WWF and other conservation organizations.  Under the bill, agricultural businesses can earn up to $1.5 million and still be eligible for direct payments.

“Imposing income caps for public subsidies is an important first step,” Clay said.  “But the caps in this bill are set too high to be considered real reform.  With rising food prices throughout the world, affecting the most impoverished and vulnerable populations in developing countries, the Farm Bill could have taken any number of creative and far-reaching measures to address this global crisis. Instead, it maintains the traditional subsidies that create the market imbalances that are among the many culprits in today’s food crisis.

“In short, subsidies lead to overproduction without environmental safeguards,” Clay added. “The Farm Bill will cause US agriculture to have environmental and social impacts far beyond our borders.” 

The Farm Bill was approved by the Senate today on a vote of 81 to 15.  It passed the House yesterday 318 to 106 and now heads to the President, who has threatened to veto it.