Welcome to the RFF Weekly Policy Commentary, which is meant to provide an easy way to learn about important policy issues related to environmental, natural resource, energy, urban, and public health problems.
This week is the anniversary of the series—a year ago, Paul Portney contributed the first commentary on environmental challenges facing the United States.
The Conservation Reserve Program, under which environmentally sensitive land is taken out of agricultural production, was recently re-authorized under the 2007 farm bill. This week, Ralph Heimlich discusses the evolution of the CRP, its benefits and costs, how it is being affected by ethanol policies, and ways the program might be improved.
Retiring land from production offers ecological benefits, too, by reducing soil erosion and flooding and improving wildlife habitat and water quality—all important to the general population. By protecting 25 million acres of highly erodible cropland from erosion, CRP reduced soil erosion by 470 million tons in FY 2007 compared with pre-CRP erosion rates. CRP’s 1.9 million acres of streamside buffers have protected surface waters from sedimentation and nutrient enrichment. CRP has enrolled 1.1 million acres in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and Great Lakes basin national conservation priority areas and 3.4 million acres in states’ water quality priority areas, plus 2.1 million acres of restored wetlands that filter nutrients and sediments. USDA estimates that in 2007, CRP reduced agricultural runoff of sediment by 207 million tons, nitrogen by 480 million pounds, and phosphorus by 108 million pounds.
A relatively new benefit involves climate change. CRP lands serve as carbon “sinks” and in 2007 sequestered 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in soils and vegetation.
Not counting any changes in farm income and consumer prices, net social benefits were estimated to range from slightly less than $1 billion per year to more than $11 billion over 10 years. The costs of CRP over 1985–2005 are estimated at $21.8 billion, less savings in government costs for commodity programs of $11 billion, giving a net cost of $10.7 billion. A partial accounting of estimated benefits totals $23 billion in net present value over the period, resulting in a net social benefit of $12.2 billion (Table 1).
Table 1. CRP costs and benefits, 1985–2005 ($millions)
Source: Agricultural Conservation Economics.
Biofuels are unleashing a burst of “fencerow to fencerow” enthusiasm and threatening to undo the past 30 years of conservation effort. Alternative-energy proponents have had their eye on CRP as a source of “free” land for a decade: it is already subsidized and can be earmarked for biomass production at low cost. Now biofuel production is being encouraged by mandates and subsidies and even a federally supported pilot project on CRP land. As demand soars for alternative fuels, recropping retired land could provide feedstock without stressing traditional markets for feed grain and food. Increased demand for corn to produce ethanol and soybeans to make biodiesel is pushing up prices and drawing down stocks, creating an incentive for additional acres to leave their CRP contracts.
In July 2008, damage to crops from spring floods, spiking demand for biofuels and livestock feed, and rising consumer food prices nearly led Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer to release 12 million to 15 million CRP acres without penalty. Even with repayment and penalties, nearly 300,000 acres were bought out of contracts in 2008. Contracts on more than 2 million acres will expire in 2008 and on 20.2 million acres by 2012. Unless CRP rental rates are raised to match incentives for recropping, 27 percent of the CRP land coming out of contract will be economically justified in leaving the program and being plowed up.
Refocusing on the Goals