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December 08, 2007

The Farm Bill: Let’s Talk About Dirt

Posted in: Environment

Cheap as dirt?

Well, not exactly.

The small ball of rock in space we call Earth is able to support us us animal critters only because of our friends the plants – we depend on the kindness of plant farts (which we call oxygen).

The plants, in turn, need water (see TFB water) and soil. Just add sunlight and – voila – we have plant farts to breathe and dead plants to eat.

Earth – what a planet!

Ya gotta love it.

OK – time to define a term or two. What is this "soil"

Well – soil – what we city folks call "dirt" – is a complex mixture of non-living material (sand and rocks), decomposing materials (dead plants and animals), the decomposition squads (insects, fungi, and microbes), and this funny thing called "humic acid".

We’ve already learned that industrial agriculture is an "open-loop" system. In this system, we pour in vast amounts of fossil fuel and water – and increasingly use fossil fuel to pump the water poured on the industrial ag fields.

We’ve also learned that – in return for sluicing our fields with rivers of water and supertankers of fossil fuel – we Americans get mountains of surplus commodity grain.

Hey – what’s wrong with that?

Well, rather a lot.

The "open-ended" industrial ag system doesn’t retain the massive inputs of fossil fuel and water. Before industrial ag, most agriculture was a "closed loop" – the farmer locally produced nitrogen (in the form of animal wastes) and soil amendments (what we city folk call compost), and tended to use local water supplies. This system – limited by local resources – was also less productive – so one farmer would produce enough food for about eight other people.

Industrial ag, in contrast, feeds a whole lot more people per farmer – but at the cost of devastating externalities. The irrigation water and fossil fuel inputs leave the farm in the form of commodity grains – but so too do great plumes of diesel exhaust, clouds of pesticides, and rivers of fertilizer-laden water.

And lots and lots of soil – what we city folk know as "dirt".

When the first Europeans pushed onto what we now call the American Midwest, they found oceans of native grasses, and millions of creatures – bison – that had to convert those native grasses into bison flesh. And – under all that – they found soil. Rich topsoil, at that – the stored wealth from uncounted millenia of prairie grasses, bison poop, and dead creatures. That soil – which seemed limitless to the first European settlers – is actually a finite resource. In some areas of the US midwest, farmers now have only half the depth of topsoil that covered the land a century ago.

Just as heavily subsidized commodity exports "carry away" the fossil fuel products (diesel, pesticides, and herbicides) and water used to raise them, every single bushel of subsidized corn, wheat, cotton, alfalfa, rice, and soy carries away irreplaceable ancient topsoil.

Our commodity exports not only mine our grand-children’s water – they also mine the topsoil out from beneath their future.

So what does this have to with our pal the Farm Bill?

Rather a lot. As we’ve discussed previously, TFB is a bundle of Titles. One Title includes the WIC and school lunch programs – another Title hides the real shell game – the massive subsidies to industrial ag and commodity exports. That’s the not-so hidden subsidy for Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland…as well as the stream of taxpayer dollars underwriting the export of America’s topsoil, water, and dearly bought fossil fuels. Yet another Title in TFB is for soil conservation programs – Federal subsidies to keep land too fragile for industrial ag out of production, hence keeping the topsoil around for the next two hundred years of Americans. These venerable titles have a new pal in the form of over 2 billion dollars for fruit and veggie production, as well as a hefty piece of cash for organic ag – almost all of which will go to subsidize corporate organic producers.

The commodity programs take over 40 percent of total TFB funds – and the factory feed lots, pig farms, and chicken cities that depend on the subsidized corn are second only to ADM and Cargill in pushing to keep those subsidies to industrial food going.

Now TFB has been around since FDR, renewed every five years by a reliably compliant Congress.

Until this year. This year the rest of the nation put up a fight – and may still win. This year the commodity programs may get whacked – but at the least they are now dragged out in the sunlight.

This year the Senate initially balked at rubber-stamping the massive subsidies in the commodity title of The Farm Bill. Yesterday the Senate finally hatched out a partial Farm Bill, but the Senate has yet to decide on amendments to curb the commodity programs. The debate has been taken out of the Senate Ag Committee (thank Goddess) and into the full Senate – and this is where we at the Lake can make a difference.

So much of California is ag land that Boxer and DiFi will play a big role – as will the non-farm state Senators.

This week, call your Senator and ask them to vote to end the commodity subsidies.

It’s the least we can do for our grandchildren – stop subsidizing the export of the soil, water, and energy their grandchildren will need.

Cause why do we have a Federal Government – to enrich ADM and the Cargill billionaires, or four our children and their posterity?

If you agree it’s the latter, then call your Senators on Monday.

Bon Appetit!


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