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American farm subsidies squelch innovation

By Richard Manning
Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003 – CropChoice guest commentary) --Duplicity practiced on a personal scale is hypocrisy, but when applied to the grand scale of the American heartland, it magically becomes conservatism. Once the sole purview of a few compliant congresspeople, a handful of ignored academics and tractor dealers, U.S. farm policy today is relevant to each American for what it can teach about our nation's politics.

Lynn Sickle, an Arkansas rice farmer, talks as would most any of the hundreds of farmers I have met: "I'm a conservative person. But if this is what it's going to take for highly productive farmland to continue to provide food nationally and internationally, well, that's the taxpayer's burden."

Sickle speaks of a particular chapter in this story greatly illustrative of the whole. The rice farmers of Arkansas already get about half of their gross from federal subsidy. They have nearly pumped dry the aquifer that irrigates their crop. Now they, the state government and the Army Corps of Engineers would very much appreciate it if the federal government would cover 65 percent of a $300 million irrigation project to supplement the more than four feet of water nature already delivers annually.

They even have an argument of sorts to justify this: that the federal government has indeed subsidized irrigation projects throughout the West, so there ought to be a bit of room now for a few razorbacks at the public trough. Their argument illustrates the root pathology in all this. American agriculture operates as a welfare state that has cultivated the very sense of entitlement that characterizes all those other states of welfare that American conservatism so despises. Part of this pathology is a suppression of creativity and invention, assets our farm policy now surrenders to the rest of the world. This is not abstraction, particularly in the case of public investment, rice and water for it.

(Not that it takes a lot of creativity to solve this apparent dilemma. Four feet of rain a year might not grow the rice these farmers want to grow, but it is plenty for most any other crop you can name.)

If it’s true that necessity mothers invention, then rice agriculture ought to be full of innovation. It is the world’s most important crop, by itself providing about a quarter of human nutrition. But it is especially important for the world’s poorest people. The poorest of rice farmers and rice consumers live on lands without irrigation, so necessity, diversity, natural selection and 10,000 years of plant breeding have produced rice varieties that grow with very little water. Worldwide, upland and rain-fed rice -- as opposed to irrigated rice -- account for about 45 percent of the total area planted to the crop. The poor are locked into poverty because they are stuck with marginal lands where irrigation is unavailable, and the drier varieties of rice don’t yield as well as the irrigated.

This past year I visited a dryland rice farmer in India whose lifetime income wouldn’t buy his Arkansas counterpart’s pickup truck. Joining me on that visit, though, was a rice scientist, an Indian plant breeder. He was part of a worldwide network of thousands of highly trained molecular biologists, agronomists, plant pathologists and breeders, all working to create strains of dryland rice that are more productive. One of their main targets is growing rice with less rain, and they are succeeding. They are not using genetic engineering, but rather, conventional plant breeding assisted by biotechnology for reading a plant’s genetic code. They are growing more food while conserving resources. Don’t “conserving” and “conservatism" have the same origin?

This network of rice science is not an accident but the result of investment. In the mid-1980s, the Rockefeller Foundation committed $100 million over 15 years -- a third the cost of the Arkansas irrigation project -- to training 400 rice scientists, building labs throughout Africa, Asia and Central America, and paying for basic research. Growing high-yield rice varieties with very little water is but one of the payoffs.

In the end, the vexing part of American farm policy is not so much how the money is spent, but how it is not spent. Are we better off as a nation when science, innovation and efficiency fuel agriculture elsewhere, while subsidy fuels it here? The sort of profligacy that supports American subsidy someday will end. Then what? Can we imagine Americans begging India’s farmers to share a bag of seed?

About the author: Richard Manning is writing a book about rice, biotechnology and the developing world. An author of a number of books including "Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution," he is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, an agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan.