Emptying the horn of plenty

America is blessed with the world's largest contiguous area of prime cropland. The extraordinary success with which grain is grown there is a boon not only to American consumers, but also to millions elsewhere who can now afford meat in their diet. One-third of US cropland is harvested for export. This provides earnings vital to the US balance of payments and the dollar in an era of costly oil imports. The use of a grain embargo to penalize Soviet expansionism underlines the growing role of US grain in international politics.

But there is a dark side to this story of bounty. Grain production is taking an irretrievable toll of US soil and water resources. More topsoil is lost annually than in the Dust Bowl years. Worse yet, the rate of loss is increasing despite billions spent for conservation. And the lost soil carries chemical residues that degrade surface and ground waters, making them unfit for humans, animals, and fish.

This disturbing situation can be traced in large part to unintended consequences of traditional government programs in support of research and farm income. For it was wartime research that initiated the science-based highly capital-intensive methods that doubled and tripled crop yields in the decades after World War II.

In the process, agriculture lost self-sufficiency and became dependent on industry for seed, machinery, pest controls, and above all fertilizer. Whereas for centuries, most fertilizer came from animal manures plus crop rotation, in the 1950s cheap chemical fertilizers were substituted. Indeed, their use expanded by almost 600 percent in the 30 postwar years -- the single most important factor in productivity growth.

The catch is this: without "organic" inputs from livestock and crops, the physical properties of soils deteriorate, becoming more susceptible to water and wind erosion, and less able to detoxify chemical herbicides and pesticides. They need more and more energy inputs in the form of chemical fertilizers to maintain productivity, let alone increase it. It is a cycle that is at once productive and destructive.

Farmers traditionally have a dual role. They not only feed the current population, but they also husband the natural resources on which future generations draw.American farmers are failing as stewards of the future, not because they are necessarily greedy and uncaring, but because of a continuing cost-squeeze.

We can see now that the "industrialization" of agriculture led to industry's familiar syndrome: a technological breakthrough (inthis case, petroleum-based inputs) permits increased output at lower cost. If demand is strong (or government supports are high, as in wartime to the mid-1950s), those who adopt the new methods produce more at a lower cost and prosper. If this increased production leads to a decline in demand and prices fall (or if taxpayers balk at the cost of surpluses, and price supports are cut back, as in the mid-1950s a producer can remain solvent only by adopting the new methods to reduce costs. The supply glut worsens, prices slide, and only the most efficient remain.

Those farmers who survived this technological treadmill increased their landholdings and crop allotments (to which price supports were tied) and became efficient, "industrial" profit-seekers. Legislation in 1970 which did away with allotments in favor of "freedom to plant" put them in a position to profit from subsequent events -- poor harvest overseas, dollar devaluation, and the opening of trade relations with the Soviet Union and China.

These factors combined to make American grains competitive in the world market for the first time US farmers responded by specializing in the most profitable crops, maximizing production and, in the process, abandoning windbreaks, grassed waterways, winter cover, crop rotations, and other taxsupported conservation practices. This bonanza did not last. Hefty increases in soaring debt soon restored the familiar cost-squeeze, this time with the land less protected than ever.

Society's nutritional needs over time are now squarely in conflict with the survival of the individual farmer. The recent "Global 2000" report, while underscoring adverse environmental trends, assumes that "farmers will successfully charge more for their produce, and will use the additional income to counteract potential ecological problems." However, prices will only rise when grains is in short supply, and no farmer can afford to curtail production. Economic pressures require continuous and intensive production. No surplus exists for conservation.

The agricultural goose that lays the golden egg is in jeopardy. Farmers must be required to protect the resource base and be rewarded for doing so. Every year of delay means irretrievable loss to America and to the world.

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