Refocusing the Farm Bill

July 19, 2013
Margaret Mellon
Former contributor

The current farm bill debate is unprecedented, shaking to its very foundation the powerful alliance of commodity and food stamp interests that has driven farm bills for decades. The failure of the House to include a nutrition program in its version of the farm bill, while lavishing public monies on farmers to encourage commodity crop production, is the height of hypocrisy…and mean-spirited as well.

But food stamps and commodity programs are not all the debate should be about. The farm bill also contains numerous smaller, but vital and innovative programs supporting healthy food, research, and conservation programs.

Right now, those programs are in danger of being forgotten in the farm bill debate, when by rights they ought to be moving to a more central place in farm bill policy. These are the programs that will help us face the fundamental threats of climate pollution, degraded air and water quality, and impaired coastal fisheries and other ecosystems. These are the programs that will help us encourage healthy diets and a prosperous rural economy.

All Americans are interested in clean air, clean water, healthy food and the mitigation of climate change. The growing constituencies for a clean environment and healthy diets could help transcend the narrow versions of urban and rural America that currently dominate the debate. Maybe—just maybe—the current farm bill fracas will allow for the emergence of new, more broadly based coalitions to reorient agriculture policy to achieve these important goals.

This interactive UCS graphic explains key healthy farm practices and their benefits.

This interactive UCS graphic explains key healthy farm practices and their benefits.

UCS vision for the future of agriculture

If so, we will be poised to pursue  a new vision of agriculture that both ensures high productivity and responds to environmental and human health challenges. UCS has recently offered such a vision: The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture.

Though profound in its impacts, the vision picks up on the positive features of today’s agriculture and reshapes them in ways that are both practical and feasible. It relies on four practices—crop rotation, cover crops, crop/livestock integration and landscape integration, underpinned by a properly oriented research agenda and policy incentives.

Although all are important and work together, crop rotation is probably the central practice of a genuinely sustainable agriculture.

Growing three or four crops in rotation on the same piece of land controls both weeds and insect pests from the get-go and drastically reduces the need for poisonous chemical inputs. But here’s the best part: once in place, the system keeps pests at bay year after year—no buildup of toxins in soil and water (whether the toxins were initially applied externally or engineered into crops)—and slows the emergence of resistant weeds and bugs. Crop rotation can also reduce the need for fertilizers by including nitrogen-fixing crops in the rotation.

Colorado State University scientists recently confirmed that in the High Plains, rotation of corn with other crops is “the best method” of avoiding the pest responsible for most pesticide use in Colorado, the corn rootworm. If farmers in Colorado had been rotating crops, the rootworms would not have proliferated, and neither genetically engineered crops nor chemical pesticides would have been needed to control them.

Scientists have recently documented that crop rotations also substantially increase yields.

U.S. farmers don’t rotate corn

Despite the demonstrated benefits and  relative ease of  adoption, crop rotation is not often practiced. Scientists at Iowa State estimated that in 2011 only sixty percent of the Iowa corn crop was rotated at all, and then mostly with soybeans. It is not hard to understand why. Farmers have limited land resources and generally speaking choose to grow crops commanding the highest prices. Right now corn is that crop. So, if farmers can grow corn, they will—year after year.

This choice makes short-term economic sense for farmers, and I don’t blame them for making it. I do blame our shortsighted agricultural policy that reinforces this choice by providing direct payments and subsidized crop insurance for corn crops.

We need agricultural policy that reverses direction and makes it possible for farmers to provide public goods like clean air, clean water and flourishing ecosystems. To be blunt, we need to make it economically attractive for farmers to rotate corn with two or three other crops.

Let’s make rotation possible

If we set crop rotation as a goal, there are lots of way to encourage it. We could redeploy subsidies to provide incentives for three- or four-year crop rotations; invest in research for new uses of crops other than corn that will increase their value in the marketplace; balance the corn ethanol incentives with incentives for cellulosic energy crops; or change animal agriculture to raise more on pasture or other grains than corn.

To have a chance of implementing these and other farsighted policies, we need people interested in healthy foods and healthy farms to weigh in and redirect subsidies now going to encourage corn production to new goals like helping farmers rotate corn with other crops and adopt other sustainable practices.

There will be a lot of commotion as the farm bill lurches ahead in this new, uncertain environment, and it may be hard to tell through the din whether we have moved toward sustainability in a meaningful way. But here’s a tip.

Look at what American farmers plant. If they are planting three or four-year crops in rotation, you can be pretty sure we are headed in the right direction. If they are still planting continuous corn or even corn and soybeans, we’re still stuck in the past.