A `Green Evolution' For US Agriculture

AMERICAN farmers had good reason to celebrate National Agriculture Week, which ended last Saturday. American know-how has been at the forefront of the global "green revolution" over the past several decades. More people than ever are being fed by United States farmers, thanks to new technologies and greater efficiencies.

"An American cornucopia has been created that is the envy of the planet," Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, told the Soil and Water Conservation Society in Kansas City, Mo.

But Mr. Grossi, a third-generation farmer from northern California, also had some sobering thoughts about the future of American agriculture in an age when astronomical budget deficits and increasing environmental concerns could mean big changes in federal farm policy.

For example, this country spends about $40 million a day on farm-support programs. But Grossi points out that "most of it is paid to a handful of producers, while the family farm is threatened." Meanwhile, he adds, "there is evidence that the expenditure actually worsens the environmental impact of agriculture."

Simply slashing farm support wouldn't solve the problem; in fact it could make it worse. Today, nearly 60 percent of total US agricultural production occurs in counties that are designated as metropolitan or are adjacent to major cities. Anything that reduces the economic viability of those areas in agriculture would simply accelerate their conversion to other uses - which already is happening at the rate of more than 2 million acres a year.

This farmland near urban areas often is of the best quality. Good weather, flat terrain, and proper drainage also make it easy to subdivide. This in turn puts pressure on marginal farmland - land that is more easily eroded, for example. Since it takes 30 years for nature to create an inch of topsoil, this is no small matter.

As the recent annual report by the Council on Environmental Quality points out, changing the use of rural land always seems to involve complex environmental consequences:

"Shifting land from other uses to crop production increases soil erosion and the risk of nutrient and pesticide contamination associated with current agricultural practices. Shifting land from crop production to other uses, on the other hand, increases environmental impacts from nonfarm uses, such as runoff of toxins from roadways and parking lots and vehicle emissions associated with urban development." The key words here are "current agricultural practices."

The federal government has begun programs to encourage the conservation of farmland. By mid-1992, more than a million farmers had developed compliance plans to reduce erosion on 135 million acres, including terraces, diversions, contour plowing, conservation tillage, and planting trees and grasses.

The plans for half that acreage have been implemented, but much remains to be done. The Center for Resource Economics reported last week that the federal government had denied $23 million in subsidies to farmers who violated conservation laws. But nearly half that relatively small sum (less than a day's worth of the annual budget for such subsidies) was restored on appeal. "The enforcement is not very tough, and the fines seem to us to be very light," said Ken Cook, the organization's vice president.

In his Kansas City speech last week, Ralph Grossi proposed "a deliberate and gradual shift in priorities - what might be called a `green evolution' of US agriculture - toward principles of resource stewardship and marketplace economics, which we must recognize are not mutually exclusive goals."

Government subsidies (which are likely to be cut in the name of deficit reduction) need to be shifted from commodity programs to "green" incentives in order to protect the resources on which American agriculture is based. And urban consumers need to do their part in preserving the open space, wetlands, water quality, and wildlife habitat through better land-use planning and perhaps higher prices paid to the farmers who are the best land stewards.

These are sound ideas involving not only economy and environment, but also a cultural diversity worth preserving. In the end, the "green evolution" farmer Grossi talks about could be as important as this century's revolution in agriculture.

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