Interview: Lack of ‘Conservation Compliance’ Highlights Need for Stricter Federal Oversight

Previously at EWG.

Farmers are failing to comply with federal “conservation compliance” requirements designed to protect wetlands and soil, according to University of Iowa Associate Professor Silvia Secchi, who says the resulting environmental damage requires stricter federal oversight and enforcement.

In a recent interview with EWG, Secchi discussed her most recent research on conservation compliance mandates established through the 1985 Farm Bill. The program, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees, is a narrowly focused, quasi-regulatory mechanism designed to protect the country’s most vulnerable wetlands and highly erodible land. In theory, farmers lose federal subsidy support if they drain wetlands and fail to keep required soil conservation practices in place on land classified as highly erodible.

But Secchi’s paper found that enforcement and monitoring of conservation compliance is severely lacking, including insufficient environmental monitors in areas where there could be a large number of farms violating the program. She offered potential solutions, including more funding for monitors and increasing the financial penalty for farms caught in non-compliance.

“Clearly, the problem is insufficient monitoring. But it goes beyond monitoring – it’s monitoring writ large,” Secchi said in the interview, noting that the USDA opts against monitoring and enforcement in states that have either had high non-compliance in the past or might still have many violators. “The USDA will not pick the states where they are likely to have low compliance and find wrongdoers. The sample fields are also not chosen at random.”

In addition to the monitoring problems, problems with compliance include what Secchi describes as timid regulators who don’t pursue agriculture polluters with the same zeal they have for filing enforcement actions against environmental law violations by chemical manufacturers and the fossil fuel sector.

“In those states where farmers practice poor stewardship . . . regulators will not go to the fields where there is likely to be non-compliance,” she said. “Even if they have the courage to catch farmers in the act, the fine is minimal. How is that a deterrent for a farmer?”

Improving enforcement

Secchi echoed the conclusions of her study, published last August in Environmental Research Letters, suggesting the USDA should hike its fines and bolster its enforcement.

“What you need is a high enough probability of being caught,” she said. “Once you’re caught, that fine really has to be meaningful enough to stop the cheating behavior. If done right, conservation compliance presents us with a more effective alternative for agriculture policy.”

But achieving the goal of greater enforcement of conservation compliance requirements will only be possible with a change in how the USDA oversees the program, Secchi added.

“Improving enforcement would have to start from using a more rigorous approach to looking for cheaters and penalizing those cheaters so that there is a true deterrence effect for them and for other people who may be considering not following through with their conservation plans,” she said.

A potential hurdle to improving compliance could be USDA’s reluctance to ramp up monitoring and enforcement at the risk of damaging relations with the powerful agiculture sector.

“The USDA has a problem, in that the agency in charge of enticing farmers to adopt conservation practices is also the agency that punishes them for not implementing the practices. It doesn’t want to be the one to fine them, because that makes positive relationships harder,” she added.

Instead, Secchi suggested that there could be a need for a new federal oversight agency, separate from the USDA, dedicated to monitoring farms for compliance.

“There should be a separate agency, a watchdog agency, that uses remote sensing and other data to monitor,” she said, arguing that such an approach could avoid the “tension” the USDA faces in enrolling farmers in conservation efforts while making sure they meet their obligations.

Ensuring greater compliance will also be key to guaranteeing the success of efforts to reduce carbon emission from farms. “This is going to become even more important if carbon credits become a reality, because it is not difficult to cheat in the implementation of the kind of practices that are being discussed to sequester carbon,” Secchi said.

Culture change

The chances of the USDA receiving a major funding boost for monitoring and enforcement are unclear, and it’s also uncertain whether the department will increase the size of penalties, as outlined in Secchi’s paper. Either way, she added, the federal government and the farming sector need a complete change in how they view compliance.

“My opinion is that there has been very lax enforcement for a long time in terms of how many people are scrutinized and how these people are punished. There is a culture that needs to change, both in the agencies and among the farmers.

“It is not just a matter of better funding for the agencies in charge of the monitoring, it’s also a matter of changing the culture and ensuring that penalties fit the crime, if you will,” she added. 

“Until the message changes to farmers in the heart of the Corn Belt that farm thousands of acres, [some of whom] are millionaires, that have become fewer in number but much bigger in size, and that we’re still coddling with little to no regulations and massive subsidies, we’re not going to move the needle on positive environmental outcomes. . . . The coddling needs to stop.”

About the author

For over fifteen years I’ve investigated and written about America’s worst polluters from the gas fields of North Dakota to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been a Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and a Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. As a freelance journalist, I’ve written for Politico, the Washington DC City Paper, the Huffington Post, Grist, Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

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