The Environmental Working Group is gearing up for upcoming farm bill negotiations in a big way.

The Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy nonprofit is calling on lawmakers to look beyond voluntary conservation programs meant to prevent farmland pollution and consider mandatory standards for farmers who want access to the billions in aid dollars given out by the Agriculture Department each year.


To that end, the group released a new database today that uses information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests to track where federal dollars go toward funding farmland conservation programs.

The database includes four programs operated by the USDA, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. It’s further broken down by state and county.

In total, U.S. farmers have received about $30 billion in payments from conservation programs in the last decade for things like planting cover crops, wetland restoration and protecting wildlife habitats, the database shows.

EWG’s argument is this: Voluntary conservation efforts aren’t enough, and USDA dollars should come with more conditions.

“One of the most important points revealed by digging into the database is that these programs are spread way too thin,” EWG said in an online post accompanying the database. “The subsidies would go further and do much more if they were strategically focused to get the most effective practices in the right places, and go after the most urgent threats to public health and the environment.”

If farmers want funds from federal conservation programs or USDA payments from commodity programs, they need to show they’re doing more upfront to reduce pollution, EWG said. The avenue to apply that pressure is through the must-pass 2018 farm bill, whose work is set ramp up in the beginning of 2017.

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“Farmers and landowners should be required to undertake basic measures to protect public health and the environment,” EWG said. “The conservation compliance provision in the farm bill is the single best opportunity to mandate nationwide agricultural conservation practices.”

That’s similar to what Colin O’Neil, EWG agriculture policy director, said at an Oct. 8 panel on the farm bill at the Humane Society’s Future of Food Conference.

“I think the farm bill is the lens that I think we need to renegotiate that contract, to demand more stewardship in exchange for these generous subsidies,” O’Neil said.

EWG’s effort is likely to get pushback from groups such as state farm bureaus, which have supported the voluntary program system and often argue that farmers are already over-regulated.