Farm Subsidies Smack Mother Nature

BOZEMAN, Montana — As three Holsteins calmly graze in an amber field beneath this area’s jagged, freshly snow-dusted Spanish Peaks, a family of Hungarian guinea hens waddles in the grass past my window. The $286 billion farm bill before Congress, like so much federal agriculture policy, endangers this bucolic scene.

Washington’s latest threats of further subsidies, price controls, and production targets are among the countless reasons to banish Uncle Sam from America’s farms. The command-and-control system that dominates U.S. agriculture seems plagiarized from the late USSR. The federal government routinely finances wealthy, well-connected absentee farmers and wealthier, better-connected agricultural corporations, much more than it assists the family farms celebrated in American arts and letters.

Another reason to sink today’s farm legislation is the tremendous ecological damage it perpetrates. In order to enrich often-affluent farmers with the tax dollars and inflated grocery bills of struggling consumers, federal agriculture programs foul the air and water, destroy natural habitat, and convert creatures into carcasses.

For starters, ethanol policy is metaphysically counterproductive. Atop basic crop supports, ethanol subsidies have raised corn production as high as an elephant’s eye. Ethanol-mania now wreaks havoc from the skies to the seas.

According to a study in the August 1 Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, scientists discovered that “the use of several agricultural crops for biofuel production and climate protection can readily lead to an enhanced greenhouse warming by N2O emissions.” Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and his three American, Austrian, and Scottish co-authors explain that nitrogen-rich fertilizers used in ethanol-driven corn production yield nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. Hence, “the relatively large emission of N2O exacerbates the already huge challenge of getting global warming under control.”

Rain and irrigation wash such fertilizers — plus herbicides, insecticides, and 1.7 billion tons of soil annually — from subsidized corn, cotton, soybean, and wheat farms into creeks, streams, and beyond.

Along the Mississippi, this runoff feeds algae that clog intake pipes at drinking-water plants. When Old Man River meets the Gulf of Mexico each spring, this oxygen-deprived water asphyxiates oysters, crabs, and fish in a 7,900-square-mile, New Jersey-sized “Dead Zone.”

“Cropland in the Mississippi River Basin not only receives the highest federal commodity subsidies but also has the highest nitrogen runoff potential,” observes Environmental Working Group (EWG) senior analyst Michelle Perez. She calculates that subsidies helped boost corn farming 19.2 percent, from 78 million acres in 2006 to 93 million acres this year.

Rather than develop ethanol at this steep taxpayer and ecological cost, America could import Brazil’s efficiently made, cleaner, sugarcane-based ethanol. Alas, it’s subject to a 54 cents-per-gallon tariff. (Domestic ethanol producers also enjoy a 51 cents-per-gallon tax credit.)

A new Government Accountability Office report demonstrates that agricultural subsidies and the high prices they trigger are encouraging farmers to plow and plant untouched grasslands that bison and ducks call home. Simultaneously, the federal Conservation Reserve Program encourages growers to return acreage to nature. As EWG president Ken Cook says: “We have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake.”

A Byzantine blend of federally dictated production levels, import quotas, loans, and a fixed domestic raw-sugar price of 20.78 cents-per-pound (versus the 9.83-cent world cost) makes U.S. sugar artificially profitable. So, Florida sugarcane plantations drain the Everglades, while phosphorous-laden fertilizer creeps into that mega-wetland. Alligators, frogs, manatees, and shrimp pay dearly for this gargantuan folly.

In 2000, Congress launched the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a 30-year, $10.5 billion project to reverse the rape of the Everglades — which Washington continues through sugar socialism.

“The two best things one could do for conservation are to eliminate the World Bank and U.S. agriculture programs,” says Terry Anderson, Executive Director of the Property and Environment Research Center, a Bozeman-based free-market-environmentalist think tank that is hosting me as a media fellow. “The World Bank does the damage overseas, and our agriculture programs do the damage at home.”

Sadly, expecting Washington to kill its latest five-year plan and establish an agricultural free market is like asking a pack of heroin dealers and junkies to ditch their baggies and needles and join a gym. Seeing politicians and growers swap cash for votes is ugly enough. But the real tragedy is watching co-dependent politicians and farmers jointly smack Mother Nature.