soil Photo: eutrophication&hypoxia The message is loud and clear: The environmental community wants to get out ahead of the 2012 Farm Bill debate.

Yesterday, a group of 56 leadership organizations representing over a million members across the nation sent Congress a very public memo. The groups ranged from the Environmental Working Group to the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Their message: Industrial farming has no place in this country without parallel measures aimed at stopping soil erosion, lessening pesticide use, and cleaning up the air and soil on and around farms. The statement reads:

The progress farmers have made is real, but pressing problems remain unaddressed; we will lose the ground we have gained if Congress fails to ensure that conservation intensifies in lock-step with production.

The bulk of the deliberation about the next Farm Bill isn’t supposed to begin until next year, so why the rush? There’s been speculation that the congressional supercommittee currently strategizing about the national debt might start making cuts to conservation programs early. As Don Carr of the Environmental Working Group writes in his latest article, Americans’ Views of Industrial Agriculture By the Numbers,  “Many informed observers believe the committee will effectively re-write the farm bill this fall, a full year ahead of schedule.” (For more context, read the EWG’s primer, Why the Farm Bill Matters.

Since the last Farm Bill, conservation programs have been funded at a baseline of $6.5 billion a year. That might sound like a hefty sum, but it’s only 7 percent of the total funding the Farm Bill allocated in 2008 (the bulk of it — around 73 percent in 2008 — went to funds for nutritional programs such as SNAP, and around 16 percent went to other farm programs, including direct payments and crop insurance). The coalition of 56 organizations has made a list of recommendations, including (first and foremost) that Congress maintain that 6.5 billion amount. They’re also stressing the importance of linking other types of farm subsidies and insurance payouts to efforts to improve land, water, and air quality. 

A new David & Lucile Packard Foundation poll released in concert with the statement reflects American’s attitudes about agriculture, the environment, and the federal budget. (And they didn’t just speak with enviros and sustainable foodies either: The pollsters surveyed to around 1,200 random people around the nation.) Among other findings, the results reveal that:

  •  Americans value conservation programs with environmental benefits more than programs with economic benefits such as job creation or recreation dollars.
  • 75 percent said helping family farmers stay in business should be a top or high priority in agriculture policy
  • 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and more accessible should be a top priority in the next Farm Bill.
  • 57 percent did not agree with cutting funding for farm conservation programs, saying they save money by preventing pollution.

At a time when much of the interest in food and farming can seem self-interested — we want to know how that pesticide residue will impact our own personal health, or whether there will be wild salmon available in our neighborhood grocery store — it’s heartening to know that the public is also prioritizing our shared natural capital. 

Those numbers also suggest that the grassroots organizing around the bill in 2008 may have had more of an impact on Americans outside liberal coastal cities than many of in the food movement initially suspected. Four years ago eaters and policy makers put forward a positive vision of a holistic “food bill” that will one day balance healthy food with healthier farmland.

Claudia Emken, a conservation policy advocate for the Illinois Stewardship Alliance — one of the 56 organizations behind yesterday’s recommendations — did well to reflect this holistic vision by tying the need to support non-commodity (or healthy “specialty crops”) in her statement on the issue.

It is critical that the 2012 farm bill funds programs that show proven soil and water conservation benefits and that are open to all sectors of agriculture production, including fruit, vegetable, and organic growers. Local foods production and delivery is a growing industry and needs to be treated equally.

Of course, whether or not those in Washington will heed any of these recommendations is a big question. Grist will be doing more to dig in to the conservation debate — and to explain why it matters — in the coming weeks. But this much is clear: Farm Bill 2012 has swiftly gone from an abstract concern worth pontificating about to a very pointed demand: Whatever you do now, Congress, don’t stop funding conservation on farms.