WHILE the amount of media attention given to the crisis in America's agricultural sector declined during the past year, conditions relating to the situation have not, by and large, improved. In many respects, they have worsened. Government subsidies to agriculture now amount to approximately $26 billion annually and are expected to rise in the future. Yet despite this enormous allocation of federal funds, farms continue to fall into bankruptcy.
If this situation were merely the result of the typical attrition of markets and industries that is to be expected within a relatively free economic market, one would be inclined to say that the subsidies should simply be phased down and eventually eliminated in view of the staggering federal deficit now facing policymakers. But the problem is more complex than that and requires a more comprehensive and farsighted approach.
The tradition of federal subsidies to agriculture began after the 1930s dust bowl disaster as a means to encourage farmers to leave portions of their land fallow each year, thus reducing the loss of topsoil and allowing the land to recover nutrients and remain productive. In following years, subsidies became a permanent fixture of federal policy to ensure relatively low prices of agricultural products to consumers while providing farmers enough income from their products to remain in business.
In the 1970s, wealthy investors from abroad began to see America's agricultural land as an enticing commodity. Suddenly the market value of the land soared - tripling, even quadrupling in value. Many farmers, often encouraged by their bankers, borrowed money, using the increased market value of their land as collateral, and invested in more land and larger, more expensive machinery. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the speculation frenzy receded. The value of the farmers' collateral dropped and, as an additional blow, exports of grain to the Soviet Union were curtailed under the Carter administration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Farmers could not pay their debts and widespread bankruptcies occurred.
Many pundits tend to view the present crisis as a morality play in which greed on the part of the farmers themselves and on the part of their bankers reaped its just rewards. (Many small-town banks that made the loans are now going under, too.) Others, more pragmatic, view the situation as a natural counterbalancing process that will trim down agricultural productivity during a period in which surpluses of grain and dairy products are typical.
But these responses ignore a factor that looms over this issue - and, indeed, over this planet's entire ecological system - like a sword of Damocles. The climatological changes that are occurring because of depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere and the apparent global warming trend pose far-reaching, potentially catastrophic threats to our ecological well-being. The consequences cannot begin to be foreseen at this juncture.
Today, when farms are foreclosed, the repossessed land is frequently purchased by a real estate or other commercial developer. As a result, areas once covered with crops or lying fallow are stripped and paved. The loss of vegetation in these areas increases the reflective surface of the planet - what climatologists refer to as ``albedo.'' Studies indicate that when albedo increases, precipitation levels decline, promoting a cycle that leads to permanent loss of productive soil through the process of desertification. Moreover, a number of more recent scientific studies suggest that if the ozone layer thins, crop yields will fall. And the loss of ground cover itself increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
These conditions pose potentially widespread dangers to our well-being and to the health of our environment. They should assume the highest priority for those who are currently involved in formulating policies for this nation's future and, in particular, for those who are attempting to revise current agricultural policies and programs.
How might such policies be reframed in light of these threatening ecological conditions?
One alternative would be to use the funding currently allocated to ongoing subsidies to purchase outright a certain percentage of a farmer's land and allow such land to lie fallow as part of a national agricultural reserve.
Another alternative would be to encourage owners to convert land to agro-forestry - planting, harvesting, and replanting trees. Agro-forestry industries could be given a tax break to initiate such ventures and nonprofit development groups currently active abroad could be enlisted to train farmers in agro-forestry practices.
Implementing either or both of these alternatives would reduce and eventually eliminate the spiraling cycle of farm subsidies, which comprise a significant share of the current federal deficit. They would allow farmers to trim back production. With the over-production problem diminished, farmers would be assured a better price for their crops without the necessity of continued subsidies.
While there are no studies on the cost of implementing these measures, rough estimates based on the price of land and other factors indicate that they would cost no more and probably less than one year of funding at current subsidy levels. Moreover, they would be a one-shot allocation, thus saving billions in coming years. It is to be hoped that thorough research on the cost of converting land to agricultural reserves or agro-forestry will soon be undertaken.
In light of the uncertainty of future ecological conditions, conserving agricultural land or converting it to agro-forestry industries would appear to be a wise and timely measure and would provide a way out of what now stands as an increasing spiral of exorbitant subsidies stretching far into the future.