CORN, CARBON AND CONSERVATION: RETHINKING U.S. AGRICULTURAL POLICY IN A CHANGING GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT
Mary Jane Angelo
In the past few years, the public has renewed its interest in ensuring that the food it eats is healthy and is grown in ways that are environmentally and economically sustainable. The immense popularity of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the widespread “locavore” movement, First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House lawn vegetable garden, concerns over genetically modified crops, rising food prices, growing concerns over the government’s misguided policy to promote corn ethanol, and the climate change crisis have refocused the public’s attention on the nation’s agricultural policies and their impact on human health and the environment and a sustainable energy future.
Current agricultural practices in the U.S. are based on an outdated industrial model which relies on intensive fossil fuel inputs and significantly contributes to both climate change and a number of other environmental and societal problems. U.S. environmental regulatory laws contain numerous exemptions and other provisions that limit its ability to address environmental problems associated with agriculture. Revisions to these environmental laws could help to alleviate or reduce some environmental degradation resulting from agriculture. However, to achieve the level of change necessary to fully address the problems associated with industrial agriculture, it will be necessary to find a way to accomplish a more fundamental transformation of the entire agricultural system. Current subsidies contained in the 2008 Farm Bill primarily reward large-scale industrial production of a few commodity crops, such as corn, which instead of serving as healthy food, serve as industrial feedstocks for processed food and large-scale confined animal feeding operations. Government subsidies for these commodities, which once served an important societal purpose of stabilizing crop prices and keeping farmers in business, are outdated and no longer serve the more important societal concerns of today – namely dependence on foreign fossil fuels, climate change, environmental degradation, and public health.
This Article explores a range of issues related to both the regulatory and incentive-based federal programs that affect the crops we grow, the manner in which they are grown, and the human and environmental impacts of such programs. One of the most promising means of accomplishing the goal of transforming our agricultural system into one that is environmentally and economically sustainable is to combine existing commodity subsidy programs with existing conservation subsidy programs into one subsidy program, which compensates farmers of a wide variety of crops for conserving a range of critical ecosystem services. Such an approach could result in a shift from an agricultural system which is a major contributor to climate change and dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and in which croplands are in essence industrial wastelands with little or no ecological value, to a more sustainable system in which agricultural lands are healthy, sustainable systems providing a number of critical ecosystem services that benefit the public.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/mary_jane_angelo/2/