The country’s farmers took in a record $19 billion in insurance payments in 2022, many because of weather-related disasters, according to a new analysis that suggests climate change could stoke the cost of insuring the nation’s farmers and ranchers to unsustainable levels.
The Environmental Working Group, which has for decades critically scrutinized the Federal Crop Insurance Program, published new research Thursday, finding that the cost of the program has soared from just under $3 billion in 2002 to just over $19 billion last year.
“We found between 2002 and 2022 the crop insurance program sent over $161 billion to farmers, and annual payouts in 2022 were 546 percent more than they were in 2001,” said Anne Schechinger, an agricultural economist and director at EWG.
The crop insurance program has become increasingly popular with farmers over the past 20 years as a way to protect themselves from drops in prices and weather-related disasters.
Taxpayers subsidize about 60 percent of the premiums; farmers cover about 40 percent and pay deductibles on smaller losses.
“We know that part of the increase in payouts comes from an increase in participation in the program, as well as crop prices,” Schechinger said. “But we also know that payments for weather-related losses are also going up.”
EWG also analyzed who received the bulk of the payments, confirming previous research showing that most of them are going to large, wealthy farms that grow one or two crops.
Roughly 80 percent of subsidies go to the largest 20 percent of farms. That’s in part because they produce most of the crops, but also because smaller farmers have a more difficult time qualifying for the programs. This, critics say, encourages the growth of large farms that use production methods that are more fuel and carbon intensive.
In the past two decades, EWG found that roughly three-fourths of all indemnity payments, about $121 billion, went to corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and nearly $56 billion to corn growers alone.
Critics of the program worry that it will incentivize more carbon-intensive farming. Already U.S. farms are responsible for 11 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. A recent analysis suggests that percentage could rise to about 30 percent of the total by 2050—more than any other sectors of the economy—if farms and ranches don’t shrink their carbon impact.
EWG’s research dovetails with other recent studies showing that the warming atmosphere has increased crop insurance payments and discourages farmers from adapting to climate change. More research also suggests that climate change will likely stoke crop insurance payments in coming years and finds that crop insurance premiums will rise.
The costs will rise for taxpayers, farmers and the insurance industry, but the costs will not be shared equally. From 2000 to 2016, farmers were paid $65 billion more for claims than they paid in premiums—and for every dollar a farmer spent on the program, they got more than $2 in return.
Politicians from both parties have been unwilling to make changes to the program and none have suggested making major tweaks as negotiations over the Farm Bill continue. The sweeping, half-trillion dollar bill covers a wide range of programs, including crop insurance.
“Our big concern here, when we see increases like this, is how sustainable the program is for both farmers and taxpayers,” Schechinger said. “I can’t predict what it will cost in the future, but we know with climate change, it will get more expensive.”