The future of the farm bill

North Dakota senator Kent Conrad calls the farm bill a “legislative battleship that you cannot turn around quickly.” As of mid-November 2007 this year’s $286 billion farm bill appears to be having engine trouble. Stalled in the Senate, there is talk of a presidential veto, of extending the 2002 bill.

Should farmers be able to receive more than $250,000 in subsidy payments? What should the funding be for biofuels, for school lunches? Most of these arguments are about the speed of the battleship, or which flags it should fly, not the direction.

For generations, that direction has been the maintenance and continued acceptability of high-input, industrialized agriculture —“production agriculture” to its defenders. The farm bill is the legislative and financial instrument by which we attempt to turn an agriculture that is economically, socially, and ecologically unsound into something that is politically acceptable. This is getting harder and harder to do.

Since the 1930s, farm bill conservation programs have been based on the recognition (or the assumption) that agriculture tends to be destructive to soils and to water cycling. Farm bill conservation programs seek to modify and mitigate agricultural practices, or take acreage out of production.

On the people side, there have been a whole string of programs to help the some of the victims, especially the farmers themselves. These payments and subsidies are the best-known features of the farm bills. Crop insurance and disaster assistance remove considerable risk from ecologically unsound large monocultures. Programs for beginning farmers try to address the seemingly relentless shrinkage and aging of the farmer population. Food stamps and school lunch programs help the poor (many of them displaced farmers and farm workers) while guaranteeing a larger market for farm commodities and those who process them into junk food. Rural community development programs try to repair some of the social damage. Research and marketing focuses on doing what we’re doing, but harder and faster.

But as more people besides farmers realize how important farm policy is to a host of other social issues and concerns, real dissent has grown. A big one is food and health. “A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill,” notes Michael Pollan in a recent editorial. “Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring.” Daniel Imhoff, author of Food Fight: The Citizens Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, reports that the cost of treating obesity exceeds farm bill expenditures each year.

More and more people are connecting the dots. Sustainable agriculture and environmental interests are pushing hard to change direction. Awareness grows about how American cotton subsidies, for example, impoverish West African cotton farmers by undercutting them in the increasingly global marketplace.

So far, the farm bloc has been able to appease these increasing concerns by allowing them to add some railings and flags to the battleship. But the pressure for a major change of direction will only grow, and the shift from the farm bill into the Healthy Food and Farm Act will only be the beginning. The twin issues of climate change and land degradation will further expand the circle.

Neither technology, nor regulation of technology, will suffice to stop global warming or address land degradation. We must transform our land management by mimicking and enhancing nature’s processes. The current and proposed farm bills, though they were not conceived as such, represent our main policies and incentives on energy, on water, on carbon, and on biodiversity for most of the nation’s privately owned land (see previous post).

Soil organic matter

Often called humus, soil organic matter is usually about 58% carbon by dry weight. Plants capture carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This plant material, traveling through complex foodwebs both above and below ground, is broken down and eventually some of it forms soil organic matter.

In temperate zones, this soil organic matter can last for generations, unless it is exposed to air and microbes that can rapidly oxidize the carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide. This reaction is much like combustion: carbon and oxygen are combined into carbon dioxide, releasing energy.

In tropical areas, soil organic matter tends to oxidize more rapidly because of the higher temperatures.

Perennial grasslands in temperate zones have the greatest capacity to form and store soil carbon. Much of these black, carbon-rich prairie soils were plowed in the last two centuries and have released much of their carbon into the atmosphere. In the last generation or two, alternative agriculture practitioners on all continents have discovered how to restore organic matter to their soils through management. A key principle is to keep the soil covered with plants and plant material, which feeds the soil microbes that create humus.

And it is these fundamental biospheric processes that could be a new compass for this battleship that we call the farm bill. With it we could navigate toward something far more fundamental to agriculture, and to our entire civilization, than subsidies or crop insurance. We could set a course toward increasing soil organic matter.

More people are beginning to realize how global warming represents an unparalleled opportunity for us to address poverty, inequality, and conflict, and revitalize our industrial base and infrastructure while switching to energy sources that do not add carbon to the atmosphere. But there is also a huge opportunity in transforming our land management so as to increase soil organic matter, which may be the only rapid, practical, and economic way to reduce atmospheric carbon.

The 2012 farm bill could provide major motion in this direction, while achieving most of the other goals that have come up around the farm bill in past cycles. Instead of a politics of win/lose, of scarcity and zero sum, we would need a politics that wanted to address causes rather than symptoms, and create multiple, interlocking benefits.

The methods of increasing soil organic matter have been well demonstrated by various practitioners of alternative agriculture, including managed grazing, pasture cropping, no-till, and organic. No new technology is required. With soil organic matter as the primary direction of our farm policy, we would:

Take excess carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is dangerous, and put it back in the soil where it belongs, and where it will enhance every aspect of our lives. Much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been released from our soils via tillage, chemical applications, and exposure (and it’s still going on). In the atmosphere, this carbon contributes to greenhouse warming. If we can get it back into the soil, using free solar energy, we will be able to grow food with fewer inputs and stabilize our climate.

More, better water. Soil organic matter increases infiltration and retention of rainwater, often several hundred percent. Soil holds more water than the atmosphere, more than the reservoirs behind all the dams in the world. Organic matter greatly enhances this storage, which also increases groundwater recharge, and improves water quality both in groundwater and streams.

Moderate floods and droughts. Small increases in organic matter can double soil moisture retention. We reduce flooding at the source, moderate the effects of drought, and ensure more reliable streamflow.

Reduce agricultural inputs and increase real farm income. Soil organic matter is the greatest factor that reduces the need for inputs, including nitrogen fertilizer (the greatest use of fossil energy in agriculture), irrigation water, tillage, and chemicals. Input costs are in turn the single greatest factor in farm profitability.

Increase food quality and human health. Soil organic matter is the basis for food and nutritional quality. More soil organic matter will favor quality over quantity.

Create smaller-scale farming opportunities for young people and beginning farmers. When it takes 28 minutes of high-capital, mechanized “labor” to grow an acre of commodity corn, there is very little opportunity for passionate and creative people to become farmers. If we reward soil carbon, we reward hands-on management, and this is our greatest need on our farmlands. This is also what young farmers have to offer.

A farm program based on soil organic matter would lessen our commodity production, increase the grass base, ensure greater compliance with our trade agreements, help farmers in other countries, provide a safety net to both large and small landholders while maintaining the viability of midsize and small farms, give a decisive advantage to sustainability in the production of biofuels and other commodities, and diminish the separation of labor and management that is at the root of farm labor issues.

It would also make the best economic sense. What are the costs of one out of every three children born since 2000 coming down with diabetes? Of floods, of droughts, of rural depopulation, of the current farm labor system, of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

Regulation, or 40 different programs pulling in 40 different directions, won’t create the kind of results we need with our farm program. It’s going to take investment in soil organic matter. People who have worked long and hard on farm bill policy may continue to tell us that this is impossible. Given that it is impossible, what can we do to make it happen?