ARE AMERICANS FARMER'S 'EXPORTING' THEIR TOPSOIL?
I am sorry to say that I see this ravishment of the soil continuing at a faster and faster pace in the past 25 years throughout the Midwest, because of the cheap food policy and extensive exportation of our farm products that are being advocated by our national leaders. -- Jim Sage, Iowa farmer, in testimony before the soil conservation subcommittee of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Aug. 15, 1980.
What many people do not realise is that the bumper crops are coming at the expense of the soil. I am increasingly concerned that the President and Congress do not fully appreciate that Iowa is really "paying" for our reliance on foreign oil, as Iowa farmers help with the balance-of-payments problems through our tremendous exports.m -- Robert Lounsberry, Oiwa secretary of agriculture, in the same Senate hearings.
UNITED STATES exports of grain are breaking the record again. Allowing for some overstatement by conservationist farmers of the case attributing soil losses to exports, there ism such a case. It deserves public attention. This is a good time for it.
John Block, the new US Secretary of Agriculture, helped start a state soil-conservation program in Illinois where he was director of the Department of Agriculture. But his enthusiasm for free markets and exports appears to override his concern about soil losses. As a state official, he pushed for export expansion of corn and soybeans, which he raises on his own farm. When he was named to the Reagan Cabinet, he said he favored lifting "immediately" the partial embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union. "Expansion of exports," he said, "is a key to a market-oriented agricultural policy." At the American Farm Bureau's annual meeting in New Orleans on Jan. 12, 1981, he let himself go, declaring that "given the incentive, farmers will respond, and people won't believe how we can produce so much." He said he would oppose any budget cuts in agricultural research or in promotion of exports.
Agricultural exports aren't exactly slumping, as one might think from Mr. Block's tone. In the current fiscal year (ending in September) grain exports will increase over the previous year's all-time high from 111 to 119 million tons (7percent), according to US Department of Agricultural projections. . . .
In all agricultural exports are projected to reach 170 million tons, compared with 164 million in 1979-80. The dollar value will be about $47 billion, a rise of 16 percent and an enormous credit for the US balance of payments. This gain is occurring despite the world economic slowdown, short corn and soybeans crops in 1980, and the partial embargo on sales to the Soviet Union. Clearly, the embargo, while it may have handicapped the Soviet Union in its grain import plans and cost it extra foreign exchange, did not slow the American farm-export boom. . . .
Exports of grain and soybeans have been growing rampantly in the last 30 years. . . . In 1950, we exported only 15 million tons of grain, as compared with 119 million this year. The biggest growth has come in corn and soybeans (including processed soybean meal), the ingredients of meat, poultry, egg, and milk production. Rising incomes in developing as well as developed countries have lifted demand for the high-protein foods derived from livestock. Soybean exports more than tripled in the 1960s and 1970s. Feed-grain exports (mostly corn) increased sevenfold!
We now export more than 60 percent of our wheat; more than half of our soybeans, cotton, and rice; nearly a third of our corn. "In terms of competition for land," writes Philip M. Raup, a University of Minnesota economist, "we have reached a degree of agricultural export dependency for which parallels can be found only in the Antebellum cotton South or in our Colonial era. . . ."
The export expansion has called forth an expansion of land devoted to the export crops. All of the 50-60 million acres held out of production under government reward and penalty programs in the 1960s have been brought back into cultivation.In addition, other meadows and pastures have been plowed and planted with grains and soybeans. In 1950, American farmers exported crops grown on 50 million acres, 14.5 percent of the cropland harvested. By 1975, crop acres used for export had doubled to 100 million, and by 1978 had climbed to 133 million. That was a third of crop acres harvested. Since then farmers have further increased grain and soybean plantings. This year the USDA projects an increase of 14.6 million acres of wheat over the 1978 figure. total feed-grain acreage will be down slightly, because of a switch from grain sorghum to wheat in the Great Plains, but corn plantings are expected to increase by 3.4 million acres over 1978. Soybean plantings are projected to increase by 5.9 million acres.
Part of the increase in grain and soybean land comes from continuous grain crops or, in the Corn Belt, from rotating fields only between corn and soybeans -- instead of the old practice of including two years of oats and clover or alfalfa in every five- or six-year rotation. Chemical herbicides and insecticides make feasible these practices by controlling weeds and insects which otherwise would flourish in year- after-year plantings of corn and beans. However, this heavy cropping, especially in the case of intertilled crops such as corn and soybeans, greatly steps up the rate of erosion.
Soil erosion is a far more important problem in maintaining agricultural resources than the loss of land to agriculture for nonagricultural uses, an issue that has aroused popular alarm in recent years. The conversion of farmland to shopping centers, housing developments, highways, and factories stirs the emotions of people worried about the world food shortage.
The government's recent National Agricultural Lands Study found that 3 million acres of farmland are lost to urban development each year. But only about 1 million of the 3 million acres are cropland. . . . Now that the land retired under crop-control programs has been brought back into cultivation, the nation's total area of cropland is about the same as in the 1920s and 1930s, around 400 million acres.
Vast additional areas could be brought into crop production by clearing, drainage and irrigation, but at high cost -- and much of the land would be fragile, with thin soil especially vulnerable to water and wind erosion. It would be sounder national investment policy to protect our most production cropland against deterioration.
UNDOUBETLY, the nation could continue to expand grain and soybean production, given favorable weather, by developing new cropland, applying better erosion control on all cropland, and by adding more fertilizer and pesticides -- though probably not as robustly as Secretary Block suggested in the full exuberance of a freshman Cabinet officer at the Farm Bureau meeting. After all, the new cropland brought in would be much less productive than what farmers are planting now , and nearly all of the most productive land is already being farmed with the latest technology (except for erosion control).
The crux of the food-agriculture problem facing America is soil resource maintenance vs. unrestrained grain exports. AT the rate exports are increasing, the danger of overexploitation of the land with permanent damage to productivity is becoming imminent. Yet exports have been the lifeblood of American agriculture, the most productive in the world, and are vital to farm prosperity.
Exports of agricultural products have always been important to America -- from Colonial tobacco and indigo to cotton; later to wheat, rice, pork, and lard; and then to corn and soybeans.
But the most recent rise in exports of agricultural products is truly phenomenal, even in American history. . . .
Agricultural exports began to expand in the Eisenhower administration, and much of this expansion was initially accomplished through subsidies under Food for Peace. Wheat exports under P.L. 480 averaged 12 million tons a year from 1960-61 to 1965-1966, then fell to around 5 million tons in the early 1970s and were surpassed by commercial sales. Feed-grain exports under P.L. 480 have always been small and soybean exports negligible. The increase in exports of these feedstuffs has been almost entirely a commercial proposition, fueled by world prosperity and active promotion by feed-grain and soybean sales organizations. . . .
With technological advance came specialization, further increasing export-crop production. The case of corn is instructive. Post-World War II hybrids could use larger amounts of fertilizer effectively, withstand dry weather, and yield more. The availability of cheap chemical fertilizer to replenish nitrogen made it possible to eliminate legume rotations and to cut the hard work of spreading manure. Continuous corn became feasible throughout the corn belt, especially on flat land. Fertilizer from factories replaced nutrients (at least all that seemed essential), and chemical insecticides handled the bugs which otherwise thrived in continuous cornfields. Larger machinery permitted planting, cultivating, and harvesting bigger fields with less human work time. Moreover, chemical herbicides enabled farmers to greatly reduce cultivation for weed control. . . .
Specialization increased the vulnerability of large-scale producers to the economic vicissitudes of one commodity or two. . . .
The petroleum crisis also stimulated the drive to expand farm exports in the 1970s. The country's unfavorable balance of payments encouraged the government to push for larger dollar earnings from the sale of farm products overseas. Government spokesmen have often elucidated the value of increasing farm exports at a time of rising oil-import costs, though the main cause of larger grain exports, of course, has been rising income per person abroad.
TWO NEW economic forces could have restraining effects on farm specialization and farm size in the future.
One of these is the energy problem -- rising costs of, and dependence on, foreign oil. Big farming and agribusiness no doubt will continue to be able to obtain favorable allocations of scarce energy resources for agricultural power, pesticides, and fertilizer. Nevertheless, and biological controls of pests if oil prices continue to mount, as they certainly will.
The second restraint on farm enlargement and exports may come from the deteriorating condition of farmland, caused by overcropping and excessive use of chemicals.
The rapid growth of export demand for American foodstuffs and the inexorable progression of population in the third world have led to Malthusian alarms. America and other developed countries should economize on the use of grain in livestock feeding, it is said, saving more for direct consumption by less developed countries. In addition, America should not allow Japan Europe, the Soviet Union, and other high-income countries to buy our grain for feeding livestock and enriching their already adequate diets. We should reserve more of our supply for needy countries.
Experience in the 1970s showed the usefulness of large grain reserves in softening the shocks of variations in world production. The United States has made efforts to establish a cooperative grain-reserve program with other countries, as proposed by directors general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and several national and international food study groups. But that has not panned out; the other rich countries appear to be unwilling to help pay for a reserve program with the United States dominating such a massive share (two- thirds this year) of the world grain trade. But the stake of the United States itself in a more stable grain market could well justify a bigger national reserve program than we have been carrying. Moreover, the united States has always recognized a responsibility to provide relief for famine and emergency food shortages in poor countries. Building an adequate reserve of grain should be high on the new administration's agenda.
President Reagan and his food-policy advisers will have to make farm production and export decisions with such considerations in mind. Much as it goes against the free-trade, free-enterprise doctrines of the new administration , a government policy on the disposition of grain exports will be necessary in the future -- sooner rather thanm later is the world should run into a series of dry years in the major grain-growing areas of North America, India, the Soviet Union, and China at the same time. . . .
The earth's finite supply of petroleum and natural gas, plus the cartel pricing policies of leading world producers outside North America and the Soviet Union, have caused Americans to turn to what are called "renewable" resources for producing energy. Of these, organic materials including crop wastes, garbage, wood, sugar cane (used extensively in Brazil for alcohol fuel), sugar beets, and grain are being studied as sources of alcohol, primarily for transport-vehicle fuel. In the United States, corn has been seen as the principal source, mainly because of the abundant supply. The Carter administration started a large-scale corn-ethanol program, with loans and grants to encourage development of fermentation and distilling factories. . . .
Conceivably, the gasohol market could take as much as a billion bushels of corn (25.4 million tons) a year by the end of the decade, assuming the government subsidies increase with inflation. . . .
The claims of the "feed the world" idealists, the commercial grain exporters, and the gasohol promoters cannot all be met without strain on domestic food consumers; that is, everybody. Choices must be made. These claims all stem, fundamentally, from the long history of American agricultural surpluses, bountiful production, world-leading agricultural research, and the tradition of big exports. The idea of scarcity of food production has never entered the head of the typical American farmer -- or the city-dweller once removed from the farm , for that matter.
But the bigger claim, if one looks beyond the near decades, is to consider the state of the nation's agricultural resources. Long-range planning has not been a notable characteristic of this democracy. But our oil is clearly running out, and so is the most precious of our resources -- topsoil.
Soil productivity has sometimes been viewed as a renewable resource: You can replace the depleted nutrients with chemical fertilizers.Shortly after World War II, when new fertilization and weed- and insect-control methods were being adopted rapidly, the soil conservation movements which had bloomed in the 1930s began to fade. I remember a front- running farmer telling me in the early 1950s that it was foolish to worry about losing topsoil. He advocated growing corn and soybeans on the hills, saying he could restore the natural soil productivity with chemicals; he scorned growing clover and alfalfa as money losers.
In less extreme form, many farmers followed this policy, and so did the agricultural scientists and educators at the Land Grant agricultural colleges. . . .
Soil scientists who expressed alarm about losses of topsoil didn't get much of a hearing until recently. The chronic tendency to overproduction of farm products and the deliberate removal from production by government policy of 50- 60 million acres of cropland made concern over soil resources seem absurd. But the return to full farm production in the 1970s and more evidence of big soil losses have forced a new look.
The National Resources Inventories conducted by the USDA three years ago showed that erosion is taking place on much of the nation's best cropland at a faster rate than the soil can be replaced. Topsoil lost by erosion is slowly rebuilt through weathering of the less productive subsoil, and the process can be speeded to some extent by cultivation and large additions of nutrients and organic matter.
The USDA has assigned soil-loss tolerances for most cultivated lands. These "T-values" never exceed five tons per acre per year (equivalent to about a half-inch in 15 years). For thin soils the tolerable level of soil loss is less than five tons. Losses beyond the T-values signify a deterioration of the resource and a long-term decline in productivity. That is, the topsoil is not replacing itself. The T-values are in some dispute among soil scientists, but they give as a rough measure of the state of soil resources. . . . The USDA inventories indicated that 97 million acres of cropland are eroding at rates exceeding five tons per acre per year. . . . That's about a quarter of the nation's cropland.
In critical areas, soil losses are much greater. Nearly a third of the land in row crops in the Southeast, and in the corn belt about a fifth of the row-crop land, is eroding at the rate of 10 tons per acre per year. "Iowa," its secretary of agriculture said, "has the dubious honor of having the highest average soil loss of any state in the nation." Western Tennessee is another area with heavy soil losses from water erosion. Heavy cropping of corn and soybeans is the reason in both places.
As export and other demand for food increases, the pressure rises on land susceptible to erosion. Even the relatively flat lands of Iowa are eroding badly, from both water and wind. What is worse, though, is the washing of hilly land brought into row-crop cultivation in response to high prices for corn and beans.
John Timmons and D. C. Cory, of Iowa State University, have estimated that under a "high export scenario" through 1985 soil erosion losses for the corn belt would increase by 72 percent -- and their scenario was considerably below the actual exports of 1979-80 and 1980-81. . . .
Nobody knows for sure how long present soil losses can be experienced without a decline in national food-producing capacity. Erosion may not be the only cause of deterioration of soil resources from heavy grain cropping. Compaction of the soil from big machinery on large-scale, one- and two-crop farms already is a problem in some places. Bigger machines with more power may solve this problem for a while, but there must be limits. The relations between soil productivity and rates of erosion and soil compaction are not precisely known. It is evident, however, that there is an analogy between overuse of cropland and the extraction of petroleum or coal.As John Timmons has pointed out, both soil and petroleum are formed by geological processes. Through excessive erosion, soil becomes an exhaustible resource -- essentially nonrenewable. Petroleum is destined to have a short life- span on Earth, But topsoil can be used and reused indefinitely if properly cared for.
In sum, evidence is accumulating that our use of agricultural resources is verging on the reckless, that the soil is being mined to the detriment of productivity for the long run. Agricultural production and foreign trade policies up to now have ignored the long-range resource maintenance factor. It is time for a change.
America's food-producing capacity is a powerful asset to the domestic economy and to this country's conduct of world affairs. Despite the wonders of modern agricultural technology, this capacity rests heavily on the nation's primeval soil and water resources. Agricultural and foreign trade policies which result in overexploitation of soil resources and a loss of sustainable capacity to produce would endanger the nation's future.
How then can we preserve the resources that make our food-producing capacity possible? The answer must be threefold: setting priorities among major claimants on agricultural production; a natural resource conservation policy, including both protection for farmers and incentives for their participation; and, finally, intensified technical assistance to developing countries for their food production. . . .
Considering the ominous reports on soil losses from the nation's most competent soil scientists, one possible source of strain on the land could be eliminated with minimum pain -- gasohol. Despite the wild projections of some biomass alcohol promoters, the hard fact is that a significant amount of transport fuel from grain would be very costly in terms of food supplies and soil depletion. . . .
It would be disastrous to try to run our cars by using food resources for the job. . . .
The farmer has a legitimate claim to protection against a policy of conserving resources that would limit his markets and lower his prices -- even if the land being conserved is his private property. The fact is that soil conservation -- including investment in terraces, contour farming, and the withholding of land from cash-crop production -- is too costly for most farmers to do on their own. The average farmer does not have a long enough planning horizon to justify the investment. He cannot expect the land to improve enough to pay off for him in the 25 or 30 years he expects to be farming.
So any national agricultural resources conservation policy that will work must include means of paying the farmer to cover his extra costs. The acreage set-aside system provided in the 1977 Agricultural Act is one device for reducing production and holding it more or less in line with a reduced export volume, thus offsetting the effect of lower exports on prices. The act expires this year. It could be modified to assure the adoption of more conservation practices, but that would cost more money, which President Reagan does not want to spend.
After all those 40-odd years of crop acreage limitations, a really fair and effective plan has yet to be devised. Paying farmers subsidies for withholding land and for preventing erosion probably would be fairer and more effective, however, than paying subsidies based on number of pounds or bushels produced. The latter method simply rewards efforts to conserve less and produce more on the eligible land.
If the United States is to maintain its food-producing capacity, it will have to take action to prevent deterioration of the soil base. That very likely means in the next two decades the withholding of production of grain and soybeans to some extent, depending on the ability of new agricultural research and technology to increase output per acre without soil losses. This will be extremely difficult to accomplish politically at a time when world demand from both developed and underdeveloped countries is certain to increase, because of population growth and income improvement.
But America cannot "feed the world" -- that is, meet foreseeable food deficits -- under any conceivable circumstances, even with all-out production now -- to say nothing of the needs in the 21st century, soon to be upon us. Concern over the world's hungry and malnourished must be turned toward development of their local food-producing power. Allowing them to become dependent on the United States for steady supplies of grain, and serving as a ready reserve granary as well, is no service to be hungry -- because we can't keep it up.
Plowing money, fertilizer, seed, technical assistance, and, above all, applied research into the agriculture of the developing countries would pay off far better than exhausting the soil productivity of America in order to supply the mounting world demand.