What do George W. Bush, the Sierra Club, and the World Trade Organization have in common? All three want the United States to phase out its costly federal crop subsidies, replacing them with more enlightened assistance to farmers.
Currently subsidies are doled out based on volume of production rather than need, and in only a few instances with environmental concerns in mind. The result is that more than 80 percent of federal cash payments go to a quarter of the country's 2 million farms, mostly large grain and cotton growers in the South and Midwest. According to the USDA, these payments induce farmers to grow 25 million acres more corn and soybeans than the country needs, driving prices down and small farms out of business.
Every five years or so, Congress passes a farm bill that maps out how and where it will support agriculture and what it expects in return. The current law, passed in 1996, expires this fall. It was ostensibly written to finally wean agriculture from Depression-era price supports, but those same subsidies reemerged virtually untouched each year as emergency appropriations.
In a new twist, the White House has defied long-standing Republican tradition and called for an overhaul of the farm payment system. The Bush administration wants more bang for
its billions, with increased emphasis on egalitarian incentive programs that benefit any farm that takes steps to prevent erosion or runoff.
The administration is more concerned about protecting international trade than streamside habitats, but few environmentalists are complaining. This is the first year that lawmakers must abide by a 1997 World Trade Organization agreement committing member nations to reducing direct price supports deemed by the WTO to hamper trade; the United States is capped at $19.1 billion per year. While a bloated-as-usual farm subsidy program could easily violate WTO guidelines, most money spent on conservation incentives is acceptable under the treaty.
Environmental groups want to expand a handful of successful efforts that please farmers and free-traders alike. Among them are the Conservation
Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave highly erodible and other sensitive lands fallow, and the Wetlands Reserve Program, which helps farmers restore wetlands and fines those who destroy them.
Other worthwhile conservation programs include the Farmland Protection Program, which helps purchase development rights to halt sprawl, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which assists farmers in their efforts to protect threatened and endangered species. In fact, conservation payments are already so popular with farmers that they rank third among federal incentives, behind cash payments for corn and wheat. Farmers know a good thing when they see it, and so do environmentalists and the president. Now it's up to Congress to sow the seed.
In October, the House of Representatives chose lobbyists over conservation, passing a $171 billion farm bill that would increase commodity payments by $49 billion and provide huge subsidies to animal feedlots and factories, a major Sierra Club concern. This made the Senate the focus of farm-policy reform, where the Club supports a proposal by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would help farmers safeguard clean water, protect wetlands and wildlife habitat, and prevent suburban sprawl. For more information, go to www.sierraclub.org/cleanwater.