Many Americans likely do not associate farmers with the cutting edge of technology. But with the rise of precision agriculture and innovative new tools for data collection, U.S. agriculture is changing in ways that promise to increase yields, boost farm efficiency and improve soil health.
Such changes were the focus of an Oct. 22 hearing  of the House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation and Forestry subcommittee. One California farmer detailed how his operation has been recognized with the state’s highest environmental honor, with the capacity to feed each of 200,000 people a 2,000 calorie diet for a year, thanks to innovative sustainability practices.
Not only can precision agriculture help us feed a growing global population, it also is an important tool for responding to environmental challenges and saving taxpayer money. For too long, taxpayers have spent billions on conservation programs that lack effective oversight mechanisms and do not produce measurable environmental benefits. Harnessing agricultural data could be the answer to ensure our investment provides valuable returns to the public.
Consider, for example, enforcement of what’s known as conservation-compliance standards. Under conservation compliance, producers who wish to receive federal farm subsidies must ensure they will not plant or produce on converted wetlands, nor will they farm highly erodible land unless they develop a conservation plan in coordination with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). These are a condition for nearly all federal farm subsidies, from crop insurance premium subsidies to commodity support programs to the Trump administration’s tariff mitigation payments.
Conservation-compliance requirements are a powerful way to encourage farmers to protect vital public goods like soil and water health, without violating property rights. Studies have shown, however, that these standards are rendered completely meaningless when they are not enforced effectively across the country. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that just 1 percent of land subject to conservation compliance is ever audited. Producers have little incentive to comply when they know they have a 99 percent chance of never being held accountable.
Better use of agricultural data could help NRCS ensure that producers meet required standards and that taxpayers no longer subsidize environmentally destructive farming practices.
In addition to conservation compliance, taxpayers spend $6 billion annually on farm bill conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Project (CSP), which pay farmers to adopt certain conservation practices on working lands. Here, too, not enough is done to ensure taxpayer-funded projects produce positive environmental outcomes and generate a good return on investment. An analysis of EQIP contracts by the Environmental Working Group found that between 2009 and 2016, just 14 percent – $600 million – of all EQIP funding went toward conservation practices that have been identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as producing the most environmental benefits for water quality, water quantity, soil health, air quality and fish and wildlife. Meanwhile, more than $1 billion–or more than 20 percent of EQIP funds–was spent on infrastructure practices that produce relatively little environmental benefit.
There has been promising momentum in the effort to harness data to measure the impact of conservation programs beyond the subcommittee’s hearing. Language in the 2018 farm bill, for example, instructed USDA to issue a report to Congress within the next year on how the agency can aggregate disparate data on conservation practices and their effects into a single database. Reps. John Faso (R-N.Y.) and Marcia Fudge’s (D-Ohio) Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act , which would have directed USDA to use up to 1 percent of funding available for new enrollment in conservation programs to support enhanced measurement and evaluation, made it into the House-passed farm bill before it was removed from the final bill in conference committee.
There is bipartisan appetite for reform but much more needs to be done to build on the momentum from the farm bill debate and to make better use of data for monitoring conservation outcomes. In a budget-constrained environment and with the national deficit approaching $1 trillion, it is increasingly urgent for policymakers to find ways to stretch precious dollars further and ensure conservation funds are not wasted.
Dustin Madison, a Virginia farmer who testified at the subcommittee’s hearing, said it best: “If there is a way to do what we do better for the environment and, in turn, for our bank accounts, farmers will respond.” By effectively harnessing market forces and making better use of data, policymakers can give taxpayers more bang for their buck and bring some of our outdated farm bill programs into the 21st century.
- “hearing”: https://agriculture.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=1241
- “Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act”: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/4751