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 U.S.S.R. The Feds routinely finance 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 wholly 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, the Max Planck Institute’s Paul Crutzen and three others 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.” The Nobel Prize-winning chemist and his 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.)