Laurie Ristino & Gabriela Steier
Soil and water are inextricably related, a fragile and complex system upon which agriculture and, in turn, our species, depend. Yet we tend to regard this relationship and its criticality in the singular dimension of drought, hindering progress in policy and law to improve agricultural sustainability. Without necessary policy reforms designed to protect the delicate balance between soil health, water conservation, and agricultural yield, we are foreclosing a food secure future for our nation. America’s agriculture and farm policy, as embodied in the Farm Bill, has devastated natural resources and, thereby, nature. Single resource advocacy and land management, such as water or soil conservation, fails to address this systems-based challenge, which is inextricably tied to the farm bill safety net. American agriculture, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), commands the majority of the land mass of the lower forty-eight states. Agriculture is, by far, the biggest consumer of fresh water, all while hemorrhaging top soil and draining wetlands, creating a vicious cycle perpetuating heavy commercial inputs. In order to address the system of resource misuse we reinforce through law and policy, we must first understand the pressures and policies that shape the American food and agriculture system. Then, we must renegotiate society’s benefits and priorities afforded to the agricultural sector with policy changes at the nexus of water, soil, and safety net. This rebalancing is absolutely critical if we have any hope of fostering resilient food and agriculture systems in the face of climate change, population growth, and scarce natural resources.
Given its pervasive environmental harm, American agriculture is one of the last horizons of environmental law. The point of this article is not to vilify agricultural producers, but to leverage society’s renewed interest in food to create a clear-eyed dialogue regarding how to address these harms while ensuring food security for the nation and economic security for those who produce our food. One of the pillars of this dialogue must be a hard look at the so-called farm safety net and its relationship to our national policy regarding environmental stewardship and agriculture: the conservation title (“Title II”) of the Farm Bill. Unfamiliar to most environmental advocates, the conservation title is a suite of federal programs implemented by the USDA, providing billions of dollars in federal funds to agricultural producers to improve conservation outcomes on agricultural lands. In other words, the American taxpayer largely shoulders the burden of environmental measures on private “working” lands. This Article argues that in order to provide for a food secure future, we must renegotiate the Farm Bill’s safety net so that it works in concert with conservation policies by supporting production that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.