Why We Should Go Back to the Drawing Board for the Farm Bill

A proposed update to the Farm Bill continues to languish
in the House and the best we can hope for right now is a one-year extension to
the one set to expire on Sept. 30.

Indeed, it may be November until Congress acts on the
legislation. The House version has been delayed while representatives bicker
over how much to cut support for farmers and food stamps for the poor, and the
Senate has refused to vote on a limited $383 million extension.

Actually, a recent editorial in The New York Times suggests that going back to the
drawing board might be a good thing, since both versions of the new legislation
totally overlook what still appears to be unmentionable on Capitol Hill despite
the very obvious drought that has been going on this summer — the American
agricultural industry’s relationship with climate change.

Agriculture is the third biggest contributor to global
warming, accounting for about one-third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
globally, writes Mark Hertsgaard, a fellow of the New America Foundation and
author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth," in the
NYT editorial.  

There are two big culprits when it comes to agriculture’s
impact on the world around us: the fossil fuels that go into supporting the
"industrialized, meat-heavy" US food system and fertilizers that
contain nitrous oxide, a GHG that is roughly 298 times more potent than carbon
dioxide over the course of 100 years.

Both versions of the new Farm Bill continue to ignore
these factors and actually would continue to encourage global warming by
continuing to focus the bulk of its financial support on commodity crops that
are the biggest offenders: wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and (the really big
one) corn, says Hertsgaard.

This is dangerous because the current system encourages
farmers to devote even more of their land to a single crop, which captures
economies of scale but can be devastating if there is a drought or an insect
infestation.

"Relying on vast monocultures — the miles and miles of
cornfields one passes when driving in Iowa — captures economies of scale,"
writes Herstgaard. "But that lack of diversity invites trouble. A
monoculture’s uniformity means that if temperatures spike or a new pest
arrives, the damage is likely to spread throughout the entire planted area. By
contrast, the diversified landscapes of organic agriculture — corn planted
between, say, other vegetables and chicken pens — tend to limit damage."

The Senate bill that passed a few months ago actually cuts most traditional subsidies,
shifting them into a more elaborate crop insurance program that would
compensate growers when revenues from a certain crop fall more than 10 percent
below the average. 

But both versions of the bill fail to require farmers to
take the other measures to cultivate a healthier US farming system, such as
investing in healthier soil or putting more focus on organic approaches, says
Hertsgaard.

"In fact, the draft bills would actually make it
harder for farmers to do that because the expanded crop insurance would be paid
for by cutting the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers
improve their land’s ecological health," writes Herstgaard in the NYT.

The scuttlebutt is that House lawmakers are reluctant to
take up the bill
before the November election for political reasons, held
hostage again by extremists who refused to negotiate about anything and who are
determined to eliminate things like nutrition programs or food stamps.

The House did pass a modest $383 million extension, but
the Senate declined to vote on it because it was too limited.

The consensus is that some sort of extension will be
triggered, but what happens if the Sept. 30 deadline passes with no progress?

Direct payments to farmers of about $5 billion would continue, along with the
food stamp program, which is supported in other spending bills.

But almost 40 other programs would lose their funding
after the 2012 fiscal year.

Those include disaster-related agricultural
assistance; the Wetlands Reserve and Grassland Reserve programs; the
McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program;
pilot efforts to promote nutrition within the food stamp program; the Rural
Microentrepreneur Assistance Program; and the Organic Agriculture Research and
Extension Initiative.

For the NYT editorial:

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