If Congress and the Clinton administration are serious about balancing the federal budget, the country's farm programs cannot be ignored as a source of savings -- with the benefit that environmental protection can be strengthened as a result.
Over the past decade, Uncle Sam has spent more than $135 billion to subsidize corn, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats, rice, and cotton. The five-year Farm Bill of 1990 started out with a price tag of $42 billion, but is likely to cost $57 billion.
But according to a recent study by the World Resources Institute ''the United States has not gotten its money's worth from its fiscal investment in the farm programs.''
''The bulk of the subsidies go to those who need them least. They do not contribute in a major way to rural development. And they promote farm practices that damage the environment,'' says Paul Faeth, who led the three-year study.
Among such practices, Mr. Faeth notes, are monoculture (single-crop farming), which depends on inorganic fertilizer and pesticides.
American Farmland Trust, a conservation group headed by rancher Ralph Grossi, recently called for a cap on price and income support programs. ''Commodity program cost overruns must be ended if Congress is to get the cost of agriculture programs under control,'' the group states in its 1995 Farm Bill proposals.
Earlier this year, a coalition of environmental and fiscally conservative groups headed by Friends of the Earth and the National Taxpayers Union issued its ''Green Scissors'' report. Included in the recommended five-year savings were the elimination of $4.2 billion in irrigation subsidies to grow surplus crops, plus millions of dollars more on below-cost timber sales, federal export marketing of agricultural products, below-market grazing fees on federal land, and price supports for sugar crops -- much of which go to large corporations.
Price supports for ''Big Sugar'' in Florida and other states cost consumers $1.4 billion a year, according to the General Accounting Office, and just one percent of the industry reaps 42 percent of the benefits. Meanwhile, the Everglades have suffered as a result. The chemicals used in sugar farming disrupt the natural chemistry and biology of marshland, causing native species of plants to be crowded out by cattails.
In an analysis of US farm policy, Congressional Quarterly observes that ''the basic design of these income and price support programs has changed very little since they were first conceived during the Great Depression.'' Yet today, CQ reports, ''the commercial farming sector is basically made up of a few hundred thousand very large and efficient farms.''
A less costly and more environmentally friendly farm program can be crafted. The question is: Do Congress and the administration have the will to do it?
President Clinton has said he favors farm program cuts of $1.5 billion over five years -- a modest amount in light of budgetary and environmental needs.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Agriculture Committee (and the owner of a corn, soybeans, and wheat farm) would cut $15 billion. This seems particularly courageous, since Senator Lugar is a presidential candidate who will need farm-state support if he is to succeed in 1996.
Rep. Daniel Miller (R) of Florida, Charles Schumer (D) of New York, and 82 other House members have introduced legislation to end the federal sugar program. Mr. Schumer and Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey are pushing for a phase-out of all farm subsidies as well.
Such measures may be too radical for most of their colleagues. But the time has certainly come to target farm programs for budget cutting and environmental improvement.