February 26, 2012

Double whammy

I really enjoy reading syndicated columns written by Alan Guebert.  You can check him out at the Farm and Food File.  Alan looks at the big picture and calls it like he sees it, and that often means talking about things that make folks uncomfortable.  That must be why I like him!

In today's Farm and Food column, Guebert, points out the double-knock that current corn, wheat and soybean prices are providing to conservation efforts based on the Farm Bill.  Two problems exist:  (1) high prices encourage farmers to remove land from CRP (and other Farm Bill programs) contracts because they can make more money by planting crops (and who can blame them...it is their land, after all), and (2) high crop prices create a need for more money to cover federal crop insurance programs, which are also housed in the Farm Bill and directly compete for funds designated for the conservation portion of the Farm Bill.

The latter point is one that I think is lost to many wildlife and conservation biologists.

USDA-reported (NASS) annual market prices (per bu) for Nebraska corn
(Powell in review: Animal Biodiversity and Conservation).
Wildlife policy folks have always wrung their hands when discussing incentives for conservation on private lands--and we worry about issue #1 above: the relative rental costs paid for conservation (CRP) or crops.  For the last few years, CRP has not been able to keep up, and the reason is found in the corn price figure shown here.  I recently made this figure from USDA statistics for annual Nebraska market prices.

Wildlife policy folks need to worry more about #2 above, because the budgets for CRP dictate the total pot available for conservation programs.  If you want to turn this into a triple whammy, the end-result is that you have less money in the pot, and the per-acre rent costs are higher: meaning you end up with fewer acres you can support for conservation.

Guebert provides some statistics: the net farm income from crop and livestock sales was $99.1 billion in 2011: a record.  But, another record also occured: crop insurers paid at least $9.1 billion.  Variability in climate paired with high crop prices is only going to make this trend continue. 

Guebert also points out that the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that federal crop insurance will cost $89 billion over the next 10 years.  This is one-third more than the $65 billion that the CBO predicts the USDA conservation portion of the Farm Bill will cost. 

Where does that leave folks interested in wildlife policy.  Well, I will end with a portion of the abstract to a paper I just submitted to a journal, where I call for more innovation in this area--away from reliance on the Farm Bill:
Private lands are critical to conservation planning for wildlife, worldwide. Agriculture subsidies, tax incentives, and conservation easements have been successfully used as tools to convert cropland to native vegetation. But, uncertain economies threaten the sustainability of these incentives. The wildlife management profession is in need of innovative models that support effective management of populations. I argue that biologists should consider the option of facilitating the development of private reserves to reduce the dependence of conservation on public investment.

We need much more discussion in this area, for sure. You can ask questions about HOW my proposal would work, but Guebert's column supports my assertion that there are no questions to be asked about WHETHER a proposal is needed!

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