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Department of Agriculture Conservation Programs Are Giving Millions to Farms That Worsen Climate Change

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The Department of Agriculture gives tens of millions of dollars every year to farmers and ranchers to support conservation efforts on their farms, but much of the funding ends up at big, industrial-scale operations that critics say worsen agricultural pollution and emit climate-warming greenhouse gases, a new report has found.

The report, released last week by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, concluded that one of the agency’s biggest and most popular conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), gave out its costliest grants in 2022 to seven large dairy farms in California, the country’s biggest dairy-producing state.

These grants, nearly $300,000 each, were for construction of anaerobic digesters, which capture methane gas from lagoons where manure is collected. The methane is then converted  into “biogas” that gets routed into pipelines to heat homes and buildings.

In all, more than $100 million in grants were awarded across the country for such digesters that capture methane from manure and other infrastructure at large concentrated animal feeding operations for dairy cows and cattle, or CAFOs.

The USDA classifies digesters as conservation measures because they capture and divert methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere. But, critics say, funneling millions of dollars to construct digesters and other waste equipment incentivizes the expansion of massive dairy and cattle operations—and only intensifies the country’s biggest source of agricultural methane: cow burps.

The IATP analysis looked at practices that the USDA identifies as having conservation benefits and calculated which of them were getting the most money. 

“We found that eight out of the top 10 go to support industrial scale farms,” said Michael Happ, an IATP researcher who authored the report. “But when you look at the most effective practices, they’re not going to the types of farms that are making the climate crisis worse.”

The EQIP program was launched in the early 1990s to help farmers pay for conservation measures on their farms, such as planting grasses to prevent erosion or creating windbreaks. It has become very popular with farmers; the USDA turns thousands of potential grantees away each year.

In the 2002 Farm Bill, the sprawling legislation covering farm and nutrition policy that’s re-negotiated every five years, lawmakers allowed CAFOs to be recipients of EQIP dollars.

“It was part of a compromise between those who wanted to increase conservation spending and those from livestock-heavy states,” Happ explained. “Since then, funding going to large CAFOs has gone through the roof.”

As of March 2020, 255 digesters were operating on American livestock farms. At least 59 more have come online since then, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In addition to digesters, the EQIP program also funds other costly CAFO-related infrastructure, such as waste treatment lagoons and storage facilities. The Biden administration has said that methane digesters would be a key component of its efforts to reduce emissions from agriculture, placing them on its list of “climate smart” practices. The Inflation Reduction Act, which directs nearly $19 billion to the USDA, specifies that nearly $8.5 billion of that will go to the EQIP program. 

“When we look at the list of climate-smart practices there are a lot of things that we support,” Happ said. “Digesters are listed as a climate smart practice and that’s something we strongly disagree with.”

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Late last year, the Environmental Working Group, which has extensively tracked conservation funding and agricultural subsidies, found that the USDA had given more than $7 billion to farmers through its major conservation programs, including EQIP, from 2017 to 2020, yet only a small percentage of the funding went to practices that had any climate benefits, the group found.

“We know that EQIP funding is not going to the right practices,” said Anne Schechinger, a director with the group and author of the study. That analysis found that of the 10 practices that received the most funding—roughly half of the overall funding—only one had climate benefits, while the other 200 practices the agency supported got the other half of the funding. 

“That means there are tons of great conservation practices that are getting almost no money,” Schechinger said. “And yet we’re spending millions of dollars on things that most people would not consider to be conservation.”

In response to a request for answers and an interview, the USDA sent an emailed statement, saying that the agency last year announced $325 million for a program called the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, which focuses on “innovative projects that emphasize enrolling small and underserved producers.” This brings that agency’s total investment for climate-smart agriculture to more than $3 billion, the agency said.  

“In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act provided $19.5 billion for climate-smart agriculture, enabling USDA to increase access to its oversubscribed conservation programs. These additional investments are estimated to help hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers apply conservation to millions of acres of land,” the agency said, noting that many of these conservation practices would have direct climate benefits.

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