Corn and the bay

October 04, 2007

The Senate is having great trouble matching a House proposal to help farmers cut the polluting flow of fertilizers into the Chesapeake Bay because senators are spending so much money encouraging farmers to grow crops that require heavy use of fertilizers.

Call it the curse of corn, exaggerated by the environmental illusion of corn-based ethanol.

Despite grand promises to the contrary, the farm bill emerging from the Senate includes only a small reduction in unnecessary subsidies for a booming industry. Yet, in the admirable cause of living within its budget, the Senate bill may run short of funds to offset the damage to the bay and other waterways caused by heavy corn cultivation.

If that weren't insult enough to the fragile ecology of precious national waterways, energy legislation pending in Congress would offer additional financial incentives to produce crops that can be converted into ethanol, which at this point is corn.

As Senate committees begin tackling the farm bill in earnest today, senators would best serve their constituents and the nation as a whole if they quit moving at cross purposes.

Farmers are vital to the economy and the ecology, and deserve a financial safety net to help them cope with the vagaries of nature. But they shouldn't be encouraged to plant every possible acre in corn. Corn will always be valuable as food for people and animals, and has a transitional role in the development of ethanol before other sources become available. Yet it is far from the miracle source of fuel that some in Congress claim.

Corn-based ethanol can never be produced in sufficient quantity to totally replace fossil fuels, and offers only marginal savings on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet federal policies have spurred an 18 percent increase in American farmland devoted to corn over the past year alone, and that's not healthy for the overused soil or the overburdened waterways.

Two recent reports warned of the danger to the Chesapeake Bay caused by heavy plantings of corn, which requires a lot of fertilizer. Nitrogen from the fertilizer washes into bay tributaries, feeding algae that cover the water surface and choke out life below.

The House version of the farm bill - a subsidy-bloated product, to be sure - nonetheless included the largest infusion of funds for bay recovery ever: $504 million over five years, including $212.5 million aimed specifically at helping farmers use cover crops and other strategies to keep fertilizer out of the water. Prospects for a matching provision in the Senate bill look uncertain at best.

If there has to be a choice, it should be to help farmers truly improve their environment, not encourage them to raise a crop that if left unchecked will only speed ecological and thus economic destruction of their way of life.

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