Modern environmental regulation and debate tends to focus on electric and industrial production—how it pollutes and how it can be regulated. It makes sense: people across the world see tall smokestacks polluting the air on their way to work every day. But agricultural effects on the environment, specifically those of large agribusinesses, are just as important, and receive far less attention. Yet the US government has subsidized its agriculture industry to the tune of $162 billion since 2008, 75% of which goes to the top ten percent of farmers. Such policies have artificially produced millionaires out of owners of large and environmentally damaging farming operations. Bearing this in mind, the next step in environmental regulation is to give these subsidies based on the condition that farmers first take certain steps to reduce their own environmental impacts. If they do not, these subsidies should instead be rewarded to farmers who do a better job of minimizing environmental damage.
The vast majority of farming in the US is done by industrial agriculture, which since the 1940s has helped to produce more food on less land and thereby feed a growing global population. Through economies of scale, large farms managed to dramatically raise yields per acre. However, industrial agriculture relies on methods that destroy its own foundations. Typically, it involves planting a single crop year after year, called a monoculture, and maintaining it with chemical fertilizers and large-scale irrigation. This monoculture not only depletes the soil of its fertility, but also increases the crops’ vulnerability to pests. Another issue with industrial agriculture is its use of synthetic fertilizers, countless tons of which end up permeating ecosystems outside the farms. This can pollute drinking water, costing about $2 billion every year in clean-up, and has caused massive algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, that algae has decomposed and used up all the oxygen in the area, creating a “dead zone” the size of New Jersey— an area now devoid of aquatic life. Additionally, agricultural irrigation uses up vast volumes of water, about 80% of America’s annual water use, most of which is lost to evaporation. Turning off the tap when you brush your teeth won’t do much for aquifers, but reforming agriculture would.
Naturally, these issues have not gone completely unaddressed. The organic food movement has helped to reduce reliance on industrial agriculture from the consumer side of the market. The problem is that not everyone can afford organic groceries as they are now. It’s time to address the issue from the supply side of the market, and the best way to do that is through economic incentives.
The justification for America’s current farm subsidies is that they ensure the US can still produce food despite variabilities in the weather and crop prices. This was certainly true when the subsidies began during the Great Depression, after the Dust Bowl put thousands of farms out of business. President Franklin D. Roosevelt included the subsidies in his New Deal as a temporary measure to get small farms back on their feet. But these programs have persisted, and now allow owners of large and environmentally damaging farming operations such as Concordia Allied Producers LLC, which received $21 million in direct payments in order to farm peanuts, to make millions. Sometimes the subsidies are downright ridiculous: Mark F. Rockefeller, an heir to the wealthy Rockefeller family, was paid $350,000 in taxpayer dollars not to farm, thanks to provisions under the current farm bill, so that the soil on his Idaho farm could recover from the industrial methods he inflicted on it. The system as it is now is rife with abuse.
Yet removing farm subsidies entirely would be extremely unpopular, especially for small farmers who truly do need them. Congress succeeded in repealing the subsidies in 1996 with the Freedom to Farm Act, but they were reinstated soon after. Furthermore, legislating farms to prevent a given environmentally destructive activity is also not feasible, as some level of environmentally destructive activity is necessary to feed the world in any agricultural system. Instead, the US government should combine the solutions by doing what economists call “internalizing the externalities.” Large conventional industrial farms should have to pay for soil depletion, excessive irrigation, and chemical runoff through decreased subsidies, while more sustainable farms should be rewarded with increased subsidies. This would not only incentivize environmental stewardship, but also drive down the price of organic and sustainably farmed goods.
The system would be simple: above given threshold of household income for farmers, or a certain revenue for large companies, subsidies would be rewarded depending on demonstrated use of environmental measures. These measures could include no-till farming, which reduces soil erosion and traps carbon in the soil, diversified crop rotation, which also protects soil and encourages biodiversity, and organic farming practices. Of course, not every large farmer needs to become certified as organic, but most can afford to cut back on fertilizer and pesticide use. For instance, a study by Michigan State University concluded that reducing chemical use to a third of the industrial average would have no effect on grain yields. Often, using fewer chemicals can even increase yields.
Additionally, reforming subsidies to reflect environmental realities doesn’t necessarily have to take money from small farmers that are already struggling to compete with large agricultural conglomerates. On the contrary, these reforms would have the added bonus of making the agricultural industry a more level playing field, with those on top seeing reduced subsidies and smaller farms seeing no change. Moreover, the prevention of soil erosion is in all farms’ best interest: if soil erodes too much, farmland becomes useless. In this way, the government would be investing in the future of US agriculture with a restructuring of subsidies, therefore benefiting the economy as well as the environment.
This idea isn’t new; the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program provide some resources for farmers who switch to more sustainable practices. These are contained within the Farm Bill that passes Congress every five years. However, conservation only takes 6% of total Farm Bill funding, and much of that fraction is just paying farmers not to farm. Wasting money on leaving fields fallow wouldn’t be necessary if farmers could prevent soil erosion in the first place with properly subsidized conservation practices.
This issue has taken on a new urgency as the 2018 farm bill is hammered out. This one will last until 2023, and it has a better chance of breaking from the past now that the House is controlled by the Democratic Party. Historically, Republicans have supported agricultural subsidies for industrial agriculture because such subsidies usually take effect in their constituent states, and often benefit congressmen themselves. For instance, Representative Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, personally received 1.7 million taxpayer dollars from the farm bill he helped write. Add to this the fact that the powerful farm lobby spent $4 million last year making sure these subsidies stay intact, and it’s clear why they’ve survived for so long.
Democrats are typically on the defensive with the farm bill, because the party tends to focus more on the the SNAP program, known colloquially as the food stamps program, included within it. However, if Democrats use their leveraging power to expand conservation-based subsidy programs and cut subsidies for enormous agribusinesses that don’t need them this year, we could see real, lasting improvements in our ecosystems and the promotion of the long-term sustainability of our food sources as a result. The EU has already paved the way in this regard: between 2007 and 2013, the EU supported organic farmers with $47 billion, and it paid off. Around 12% of agricultural land in the EU is farmed organically, compared with just 0.6% in the US.
The subsidy system as it stands now is fundamentally flawed. The vast majority of farming subsidies go to large businesses and wealthy farm owners who just don’t need them, crowding out smaller farmers who can’t keep up. Now is the time to reform our subsidy system to encourage conservation and sustainability–our rivers, oceans, aquifers, soil, and climate can’t wait another five years for the next farm bill. They need protection now so that America doesn’t find itself facing another Dust Bowl.