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Tunnel Vision

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gulf state taxpayers help fund the creation of agriculture pollution they ultimately deal with.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a new initiative to pay Gulf Coast farm businesses in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida $50 million over the next three years to help reduce the pollution that runs off their farm fields into the public’s waters.

And just last week, long standing Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Lang lost his job.

What connects these two stories?

Earlier this fall, Lang suggested something radical within industrial agriculture circles – that the government’s heavily subsidized agricultural business insurance only be available to farmers who have a government-approved soil conservation plan in place.  He apparently did not suggest the farmers had to follow the plan – only that it exist in a government filing cabinet somewhere.  Such an expectation, that there should be conditions placed on the billions of taxpayer dollars handed out to farm businesses every year , was anathema to the Iowa Farm Bureau’s convention delegates, who voted him out of office in December.  The Des Moines Register attributed Lang’s job loss to his suggestion that the government link subsidies to conservation.

The industrial agriculture lobby insists that severe water pollution and soil loss from intensive row cropping should be exempt from any federal clean water regulations.  The Iowa Farm Bureau’s stance is that  farmers shouldn’t have to file even a minimal USDA soil conservation plan before receiving free taxpayer money and that voluntary conservation programs, bankrolled largely by taxpayers, are the only environmental protections the farm lobby can stomach.

So USDA has rolled out yet another voluntary initiative.  This one will hand $50 million to Gulf Coast area farm businesses to encourage them do the right thing and reduce their pollution.

Gulf media outlets are outraged.  They know that $50 million over three years is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the billions in tax dollars paid out each year to encourage farm businesses to grow more chemical-intensive industrial-scale commodity crops using highly polluting cropping systems.

A number of farm businesses in the five Gulf states will divvy up that measly $50 million while taxpayers from those states can expect to pay billions in taxes, portions of which are repurposed as farm subsidies to maximize production using those same highly polluting cropping systems. The bulk of those Gulf tax dollars go to support industrial agriculture upstream including Iowa’s highly profitable mega-farms that ignore their contribution to the Gulf pollution that destroys the livelihoods of those dependent on the Gulf fishing economy.

Rather than teasing Gulf States with $50 million for a three-year effort that will do a little bit of good, the government should follow Mr. Lang’s suggestion in order to mitigate the effect of the billions in subsidies it hands to industrial agriculture.

Debate over the 2012 farm bill begins in one month’s time. The government should condition any and all taxpayer support to farm businesses on those businesses demonstrating they already have implemented or very soon will implement a specified, integrated set of anti-pollution control measures that will dramatically reduce their pollution of public waters.

Agribusiness lobbyists are paid to ensure the subsidy spigot remains open for mega farms growing commodities like corn and cotton. If a new farm bill neglects to protect taxpayers from agriculture pollution by forgoing conservation requirements to subsidies, those same lobbyists will be cashing Christmas bonuses this time next year.