EQIP, the Factory Farm Incentive Program

Good for the New York Times! An excellent article is running on a component of the Farm Bill: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP):

… when the program was created as part of the 1996 farm bill … the government agreed to pay a share — up to 75 percent — of a conservation project, and the payments were limited to $10,000 a year. Farmers used the money for small-scale projects that had environmental benefits, like planting cover crops to prevent erosion and soak up excess nitrogen or installing fencing to better manage grazing cattle.

But in the 2002 farm bill, the program was changed at the livestock industry’s behest, and funding for the program was raised from $200 million a year to, eventually, $1.3 billion. Yearly payment limits were scratched, replaced by a provision that farmers could get no more than $450,000 during the bill’s life.

Another change: large-scale livestock facilities that once were not eligible for EQIP money were encouraged to participate under the 2002 bill.

As a result, many farmers are using their EQIP money for animal waste management practices, which include helping to pay for lagoons to store manure. The lagoons are lined ponds that are used to keep the waste until it can be pumped out for some other use, usually as fertilizer on nearby fields. In some instances, manure lagoons have leaked or overflowed into the groundwater or neighboring streams.

For the 2006 fiscal year, for instance, the Department of Agriculture paid farmers about $179 million for animal waste management practices, with Iowa, Wisconsin and North Carolina getting the most money. More recent data was not available, nor were individual payments.

That compares with $125 million for soil erosion and sediment control, $139 million for irrigation water management and $74 million for grazing land practices, according to Department of Agriculture records.

The article is semi-rant – which is fine by me. What I like is the acceptance, by the author, that this is the way it is (the House version of the bill is more expansive, yet): they only propose more honesty.

… if Congress is to keep sending taxpayer money to farmers to build manure lagoons, it may want to consider a more honest name for the program.

How about “Factory Farm Incentive Program”?

This is, however, where the Farm Bill, in toto, is so distortionary. Here’s a thought: I’m vegan. I purchase nothing that should, in any way, contribute to shit like this. Yet I’m taxed to subsidise exactly this sort of agricultural stupidity, so that non-vegans can purchase, in blissful ignorance, Mad Cow Steaks in cheap abundance from their supermarket. Why do citizens and taxpayers, rather than consumers, have to foot the bill for the subsidies that are required to bribe Mega-farms to operate at a level of minimal environmental containment?

Absent such, of course, things would be a lot worse. But is that the only alternative? Can the government not force farms to perform certain environmentally prudent acts, and pass the cost along to the consumer? That is certainly the economics that I teach: between them, Supplier and Demander share the social cost of the negative externality of the good or service. The NY Times asks the same:

Why should taxpayers foot the bill for manure lagoons, particularly under the flag of environmental conservation? Why should taxpayers subsidize expansion of livestock farms? And if livestock farms have created environmental problems, shouldn’t the polluters have to pay for the mess that they created, rather than the taxpayers?

“Having a lagoon that doesn’t leak into groundwater, that’s the cost of doing business,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “You shouldn’t be justifying that as a conservation payment. You are building things that have been proven time and time again to cause severe environmental damage when they misfunction.”

The simple answer is yes, they can – but why would they? Agricultural sectors have significant lobbying power, and it is entirely in their interest to secure money from general taxation – because we just pay taxes, don’t we? No chance of us consuming less meat because we realise that the true price of that tray of … meat (it’s been a while) is significantly greater. Moreover, we do not lessen that burden on ourselves by purchasing less of the good – so we may as well go ahead on. We simply do not need this level of administration (consider, too the cost of having the government debate and administer this sort of dog-wagging tail of a piece of legislation). Simple regulations, with simple policing, with simple market mechanisms, could sort the whole thing out.

EQIP is perfect a perfect Trojan Horse for this, of course, because, as long as it does in fact help conservation and clean-up, it’s hard to fight.

This is also the hypocrisy of a government that refuses to countenance things like the redistribution of income for the provisional of health care. Bridges to nowhere? Fine. Money for mega farms (the bulk of which subsidy cheques are cashed by corporations in New York and elsewhere)? Cool. Affordable housing, education, health care? Crazy talk.


1 comment so far

  1. Tracy on

    Thank you for spreading the word about this story. I just e-mailed the writer to thank him for it. I, too, am a vegan and am disgusted by what meat producers get away with.

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