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The Dark Ages of agriculture: Congress is pushing a bad Farm Bill

Also on CropChoice today:

The Dark Ages of agriculture
By Brian Halweil

(Feb. 14, 2002 – CropChoice guest column) – Congress is shocked, yes shocked, to learn that Kenneth Lay and his associates at Enron used their political clout to game the federal regulatory system and skim off hundreds of millions of dollars while their company went bankrupt. But while Representatives and Senators vent their displeasure at the many Enron hearings, these same elected officials are about to perpetrate an equally bold grab of the public purse for another group of special interests, in the guise of a new Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill could have been a vehicle for strengthening rural communities, supporting more environmentally sound farming methods, and helping farmers make a transition to organic farming. In other parts of the world, governments are redirecting agricultural subsidies away from commodities and paying farmers for meeting ecological goals, like reducing pesticide use, or planting trees along riverbanks to halt erosion.

Such "conservation farming" policies are an anathema to the commodities firms and large agricultural companies that dominate U.S. agriculture. And as major players in the world of political fundraising, agricultural lobbyists make the contributions to get the subsidies they want. According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, agricultural interests donated $58 million to Washington politicians in the 2000 election cycle, and have already pitched in over $14 million for 2002.

In response to this largess, our representatives have written a farm bill that continues a long tradition of funneling massive subsidies to an elite group of farmers with little regard for how they farm. The payments are determined by the quantity of crop they produce, so the largest (and wealthiest) farms benefit the most. The largest fifth of growers received a staggering 84 percent of the $27 billion of payments last year. The other one and a half million farmers shared the remainder.

Worse yet, the lion's share of these subsidies supports the production of just a few crops, like corn, soybeans, and wheat, encouraging farmers to plant giant monocultures. In states like Iowa and Indiana, over 80 percent of the landscape will be sown in two plants, corn or soybeans.

These monocultures depend on the regular application of agrochemical cocktails that leak into the environment, poisoning our drinking water and making our waterways uninhabitable by wildlife. Where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, there is now a "deadzone" the size of New Jersey, as excess fertilizer from Midwestern farms has encouraged massive blooms of algae that suffocate ocean life.

Some economists argue that the incentives in the current payment system create perverse incentives to reduce spending on resource conservation. For example, a Midwestern farmer who wants to sow winter rye rather than subsidized corn or soybeans—a simple change that would greatly reduce water pollution—risks losing a significant source of income, since the government doesn't pay for rye.

In Europe, well-publicized food safety crises—from dioxin-tainted chicken to the on-going "mad cow" crisis—have generated broad political support for "greener" farm subsidies. After Germany detected its first mad cows last year, the prime minister replaced the agriculture minister with an environmentalist who declared the end of industrial farming as we know it. She quickly set a goal for increasing Germany's organic area from the current 2.6 percent to 20 percent by 2010. (Organic regulations forbid feeding animal parts back to cows, the practice that spawned the mad cow epidemic in the first place.)

In the European Union as a whole, broad government support for organic farming has increased the amount of land in organic production nearly 40-fold since 1985. Over 80 percent of this explosive growth has occurred in the last seven years, spurred by the 1993 EU-wide policy to support farmers during conversion from conventional to organic production. Austria and Switzerland, which have the most attractive conversion subsidies, have the highest transfer rate. Roughly 10 percent of the area is organic today.

In contrast, the U.S. Farm Bill sets aside just $1.5 million dollars—less than 0.001 percent of the total spending—for the National Organic Program, whose functions are largely administrative.

Switzerland has begun to shift large shares of its total agricultural support towards meeting ecological goals. By the end of the 1990s, 85 percent of Swiss farmland complied with basic ecological standards, which includes rotating crops, reducing pesticide use, and creating on-farm refuges for wildlife. Pesticide use has fallen by a third in the last decade. Phosphate fertilizer use is down 60 percent, and nitrogen fertilizer use has been cut in half.

Nordic countries are also using fiscal policy to improve farming. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden already have substantial taxes on pesticides, with the goal of cutting use by 25 to 50 percent. And the Netherlands taxes farms that generate excess manure.

These European initiatives are helping farmers and the environment, and they profoundly benefit struggling rural communities. By decoupling farm support from production of a specific commodity, they spread the payments more equitably, boosting local economies.

Americans have a right to demand a farm bill that better serves the public interest, if only because farmers now get nearly half of their income from government payments, straight out of taxpayers’ pockets. Our elected officials claim the Farm Bill helps "family farmers," but the benefits that actually reach such farmers are almost as fictitious as the "income" from Enron’s infamous partnerships. Our representatives claim to find Enron’s corporate conduct shameful, but they are ignoring the political and environmental shame of the Farm Bill they are about to pass. This bill will line the pockets of the already well to do. But the bill will not help real family farmers or rural communities, and it's certainly not one that encourages care for the American landscape.

Brian Halweil is a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute (http://www.worldwatch.org). He studies issues related to food and agriculture, including organic farming, biotechnology and hunger.