Congress encourages corporate sponsorship of USDA conservation programs

In the year-end Washington scramble to pass a government funding package, Congress snuck in a concerning new law that helps agribusiness corporations influence federal farm conservation policy. The SUSTAINS Act, first introduced by Republican leader of the House Agriculture Committee Glenn Thompson, allows corporations to give money to the Department of Agriculture to fund conservation programs of their choosing. Corporate giving can then be matched by taxpayer funds.

Proponents say the law will attract private funds to supplement overdrawn conservation programs. But critics argue that it lets corporations pay the USDA to expand faulty environmental solutions that protect their bottom line.

“We know that these corporate interests do not align with the significant transformation of our food system that is necessary to achieve the kinds of emissions reductions that we need,” says Jason Davidson, senior agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Demand for federal programs that pay farmers to adopt conservation practices greatly exceeds available funding. Between 2010 and 2020, fewer than half the farmers who applied for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) received contracts. Of that scarce funding, advocates argue that too much went to subsidize the cleanup of fundamentally harmful farming practices at the expense of transitioning to more sustainable models. (Think paying for manure management for a large, confined animal farm instead of supporting a transition to rotational grazing.)

Congress could address these issues by increasing funding for USDA conservation programs and reforming funding priorities. Instead, it passed the SUSTAINS Act to attract private funds to more corporate-friendly USDA programs.

The SUSTAINS Act changes the terms on corporate contributions to USDA conservation programs. Under previous law, the USDA could technically accept private donations for public programs, but few companies took part. Under the SUSTAINS Act, corporations gain more authority to earmark money for specific programs, in specific regions, targeting a “natural resource concern” of their choice. Donors will also get some perks, including sponsorship publicity and a share of any “environmental service benefits” that farmers generate with their funds, like tradeable carbon-offset credits for taking on practices that sequester carbon in the soil. The USDA can also take funds out of other conservation programs to match corporate funds.

For example, the Conservation Stewardship Program already supports farmers in adopting cover crops. Going forward, Bayer could give the USDA a hefty donation to start a Bayer cover crop‑promotion program under the CSP. The USDA may dedicate some CSP funds to bolster the program. Any farmers who use funds from the USDA-Bayer cover crop program to generate carbon-offset credits would have to give some of those offsets to Bayer. Smithfield could donate money to EQIP to start a similar program funding biodigesters on hog manure lagoons.

The potential conflicts of interest are obvious. Many conservation programs, such as organic production or pasture-based livestock methods, require removing corporate products and production methods from the landscape. Corporations are very unlikely to donate to efforts that threaten their business models.

Furthermore, the prospect of USDA matching gives private interests explicit sway over allocating scarce public funds. The USDA does not have to match all contributions, but if it does, it may draw from fixed pools of funds in the CSP and EQIP, taking dollars that could go to other applicants. While the Secretary of Agriculture can only accept corporate proposals that align with existing USDA program goals, SUSTAINS gives the secretary a lot of wiggle room. It even allows the secretary to waive existing program requirements to fit a corporate project under a USDA banner.

By requiring farmers to share environmental service benefits with corporate backers, SUSTAINS also enlists the USDA in private greenwashing efforts. Agribusiness companies have made a lot of promises in the face of public pressure to clean up their pollution and lower their climate footprint. One of their biggest projects is to pay farmers to adopt carbon-sequestering farming practices in exchange for carbon-offset credits. Companies like Bayer, Cargill, and Corteva buy these credits to claim that they’ve offset their greenhouse gas emissions without changing their business practices. But with massive variations in credit standards and uncertainties in soil science, companies may overestimate these carbon reductions.

Further, corporations have struggled to enroll enough farmers in their carbon payment programs due to a lack of trust, Davidson argues. SUSTAINS creates a new way for corporations to pay farmers to generate carbon credits for them under the banner of a government program. Corporations will benefit from the carbon-offset claims, and they can put their name or brands on USDA projects they fund for additional green marketing. Meanwhile, farmers who want support for certain conservation practices may have little choice but to accept corporate funds through the USDA and hand over some environmental service benefit revenue to corporate backers.

This story was originally published on Food & Power, a project of the Open Markets Institute, where Claire Kelloway is a senior reporter and researcher.