Alternative Agriculture:

Federal Incentives and Farmers' Opinions

PEMD-90-12: Published: Feb 16, 1990. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the incentives and disincentives of federal farm programs that influenced farmers' adoption of alternative production methods, focusing on: (1) alternative agriculture, which attempts to address the health, environmental, and economic problems associated with conventional agriculture; (2) implications of federal commodity price and income support, farm credit, and crop insurance programs; and (3) farmers' opinions on the factors influencing planting decisions, sustainability, credit and crop insurance availability, and risk reduction.

GAO found that, while federal farm programs pose no direct statutory or regulatory barriers that would prevent the adoption of alternative practices, the programs: (1) support crops requiring high agrichemical inputs and those associated with high rates of soil erosion; (2) encourage farmers to specialize in program crops and grow the same crops from year to year; and (3) discourage farmers from rotating crops and encourage high levels of conventional inputs. GAO also found that farmers: (1) believed federal farm programs greatly influenced their planting decisions; (2) believed farm program participation and crop diversity were good strategies for reducing farm-related risks, and less than half considered crop insurance to be a good risk-reduction strategy; and (3) expect to continue their current practices, despite research suggesting that conventional agriculture practices damage the environment and other research showing that alternative agriculture can be profitable. GAO believes that: (1) further research is needed to assess the effectiveness of alternative crops and production methods; and (2) while changes in federal farm programs will be necessary to encourage the adoption of alternative agriculture, such changes alone may not significantly increase the use of alternatives.

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