How farm soil is sliding into the pork barrel

Soil erosion on farmland is now at its highest level since the 1930s, largely because of recent increases in cropland under production. Secretary of Agriculture John Block is about to unveil the administration's proposals to deal with the problem. Already critics are saying that the proposals will not increase spending enough, but they have completely misjudged the issue. It is not the level but rather the pattern of conservation spending that makes the biggest difference. The problem with United States soil conservation programs is that we are not spending effectively.

In the past 45 years, the federal soil conservation effort has funded nearly assistance to farmers. In today's dollars, that exceeds $65 billion. But today's high levels of soil erosion suggest that this money was not always well spent.

Policymakers have failed to recognize that, economically and environmentally speaking, some soil losses are more serious than others. The farms with moderate erosion yet shallow topsoils may be losing the most productivity. Wind and water remove topsoil nationwide, but, contrary to popular belief, the threat to productivity is on only a fraction - perhaps less than a tenth - of the country's cropland. Much of the soil lost from a field is redeposited on other farmland, often nearby.

Moreover, soil is to some extent a renewable resource. Topsoil is constantly being formed, a process often accelerated by farming. Despite claims in the 1930 s by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that 100 million acres in Illinois, Tennessee, and other states had been irretrievably lost to erosion, many of these same acres are under successful cultivation today.

Existing programs do not concentrate on the areas where the greatest benefits would result. Instead, they spread the effort rather evenly among different farming areas, in proportions that have changed little in 45 years - even though the distribution of the erosion problem never was uniform and has shifted dramatically over the years. Many funds and employees are deployed in areas with minimal soil erosion and even where farming is no longer very common.

Today, 30 percent of the cropland identified by the Soil Conservation Service as suffering productivity losses from water-induced erosion is in Iowa, Illinois , and Missouri. Yet farmers there receive less than 13 percent of federal soil conservation funds - a smaller share than they received 30 years ago. In contrast, the urban states of the Northeast have less than 4 percent of the nation's cropland and production, and less than 5 percent of the land suffering potential productivity losses. Yet these states receive 10 percent of the soil conservation funds. Federal soil conservation professionals are distributed even less effectively in relation to where the problems are.

SCS and the Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP) are making some progress toward greater effectiveness within each state by targeting their efforts and by encouraging conservation tillage. However, these adjustments will produce only limited improvements until a better distribution is achieved among the states.

Congress and special-interest groups together are blocking efforts to achieve this needed reform. Jamie Whitten, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, boasts that in 29 different years he has beaten back the efforts of nine presidents to change ACP - entrenching it even in 1981, when Congress cut nearly every other nondefense program, and maintaining a longstanding policy that no state's share of national spending could drop by more than 1 percent each year. Similar political quotas have been forced on SCS by such groups as the National Association of Conservation Districts. Until these traditions are broken, it will be impossible to shift much program effort to the trouble spots.

It is not surprising that Secretary Block's modest proposal to retarget 25 percent of the existing budget by 1986 is attracting criticism. But whatever one thinks of these proposals, continued resistance to some reform will in the long run undercut the argument for soil conservation spending. Why? Because the inadequately treated critical areas will continue to embarrass the national programs. Without reform, erosion could well increase, even with a much larger conservation budget.

Concern about erosion is probably more intense now than at any time since the nation's soil conservation programs were founded. However, today we know better than just to throw money at a problem - and in an era of unprecedented concern about the growing federal budget we simply can no longer afford to. Any serious effort to address the soil conservation issue should do better with the current improvement is a threat to the program's very survival, and thus to the productivity of the land itself.

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