Prescription For Health: Conservation Compliance and Crop Insurance

Crops Planted on Farm_credit iStock

I am often asked why I work on agriculture policy when my employer is the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Curious conservationist: So, public health and agriculture? Me: Exactly.

Using our natural resources wisely is one of the most pressing things we need to do to protect public health. As any farmer or sportsperson can attest, how we treat our land has huge impacts on the quality of our air, water, and soil — all of which have significant effects on our health and the health of our neighbors.

For these reasons, my colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future support Farm Bill conservation programs, particularly ensuring that “conservation compliance” is required for farmers who receive taxpayer help to pay for their crop insurance premiums.

Growing Subsidies for Crop Insurance Premiums

As many Outdoor America readers know, until 1996, farmers who received government subsidies toward their crop insurance premiums entered into a compact with American taxpayers. To remain eligible for insurance subsidies, farmers had to implement basic conservation measures. This “conservation compliance” requirement  remains today for some Farm Bill subsidy programs — but not crop insurance.

Over the next few years, crop insurance subsidies and payments are expected to become the largest farm safety net. As other subsidy programs shrink or end and crop insurance programs grow in use, land previously covered by conservation compliance requirements will be threatened — unless taxpayer support for farmers’ crop insurance premiums is again tied to conservation compliance.

Health Benefits from Conservation Compliance

Conservation compliance measures help conserve soil and wetland capacity and protect vulnerable lands by challenging the economic benefit of planting on fragile soils and wetlands.

U.S. Department of Agriculture research found that 25 percent of the decline in soil erosion between 1982 and 1997 was attributable to conservation compliance. Conservation compliance requirements also protect wetlands that reduce negative impacts of flooding. A typical acre of wetlands can store roughly one million gallons of water — an amount equivalent to two football fields submerged one foot deep in water. As natural disasters increase in number, frequency, and intensity, we need to make sure our land is able to absorb these impacts.

Curious conservationist: You’re saying that these environmental impacts affect health? Me: Exactly.

Wetlands and healthy soils filter water. Declines in soil health and wetlands have serious impacts on water quality, enabling more contaminants to enter our groundwater, waterways, and eventually our drinking water. Additionally, depleted soil often causes farmers to use more synthetic fertilizers — nutrients that can run off into waterways and pollute drinking water sources. Ingesting nitrate-contaminated drinking water has been associated with various cancers, adverse reproductive outcomes, diabetes, thyroid conditions, and the potentially fatal “blue baby syndrome.” Nutrient pollution in waterways also contributes to “dead zones” — waters so depleted of oxygen that no aquatic life can exist.

Healthy soil is needed to produce food. Loss of topsoil and soil quality reduces crop yields, leading to higher food prices and decreased food security. Healthy soil is the foundation of a stable food supply and preserves water and soil nutrients.

Depleted soils may sequester less carbon than healthy soils, contributing to climate change. Climate change in turn poses serious challenges to food and water security and contributes both directly and indirectly to infectious disease, heat stress, respiratory conditions, and other health problems.

This is also a cost-savings issue. As Jim Kleinschmidt from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has stated, without linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, crop insurance subsidies are “like giving a homeowner cut-rate fire insurance but not requiring fire extinguishers.” Tying crop insurance premium subsidies to conservation compliance is really a no-brainer. It protects public health, agricultural productivity, and the environment.

Protecting Taxpayers

If we don’t ensure that Congress closes this policy gap, taxpayers could ultimately make four pay-outs. The first is the crop insurance premium subsidy itself. The second is the rise in insurance premium costs as the lack of conservation compliance creates more agricultural loss. The third is the cost of environmental damage resulting from damaging farm practices now subsidized by taxpayers, such as converting vital wetlands into cropland. And the fourth is the health costs associated with environmental damage.

Other than enforcement, enacting conservation compliance for crop insurance premiums does not cost anything. And the potential savings for taxpayers should not be ignored. We need to implore our members of Congress to ensure that conservation compliance measures are tied to taxpayersupported crop insurance premium subsidies. In doing so, they will protect public health and the environment while reducing government farm program spending.

Curious conservationist: Tying crop insurance premium subsidies to conservation compliance is the right thing to do, huh? Me: Exactly!

Becca Klein directs the Public Health and Agriculture Policy Project for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future ( at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Center was established in 1996 with the goal of examining the interrelationships among food production, diet, environment, and human health to advance an ecological perspective in reducing threats to the health of the public and to promote policies that protect health, the global environment, the ability to sustain life for future generations, and assure equity and food security for all.