Kicking corn

January 21, 2007

American farmers already grow too much corn, and this year they're likely to grow more. Demand is at an all-time high - but for all the wrong reasons.

Most of the corn produced this year will go toward ethanol production, feed for poultry and livestock, and processed sweeteners. But corn cultivation, because it is so reliant on fertilizer, exacts an unacceptable environmental toll. On top of that, there are better crops to make ethanol out of, there are healthier crops to feed to farm animals, and Americans themselves would be better off not consuming so much corn syrup. Corn's advantage is that it's abundant and therefore cheap; one reason it's abundant is that corn producers receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies.

This year, Congress will take up a new farm bill, and it's a good time for an overhaul. Here are a few ways to start:

The program to encourage farmers to adopt sound conservation practices - such as planting buffers along creeks - should be greatly expanded. This is vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, among other bodies of water.

Further investment in ethanol development is, politically, a given. It should go toward promoting heavier use of switchgrass and other non-food sources. These are more expensive to use than corn; the government should finance research into ways to bring that cost down.

The government should do more to assist fruit and vegetable growers, rather than grain and cotton growers, because fruits and vegetables are more important nutritionally and less damaging environmentally. This would mean shifting farm subsidies from the Midwest and the Plains to California and the Mid-Atlantic, which can't happen overnight. Today, eight states, right down the middle of the country, collect half of all farm spending, with much of that going not to family farms but to large corporate operations. North Dakota receives more than five times as much federal money per dollar of agricultural production as do the states in the Chesapeake region.

The government must begin to act on its 2005 promise to reduce farm subsidies overall because of the distorting effect they have on international trade, and especially the economic damage they inflict on farmers in poor countries. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns makes this point. He's right.

All this can be accomplished without spending more. In 2006, the government spent $19 billion on farm subsidies; that's too much, and it went to the wrong places.

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