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Nation is in needof green farm bill

by Chicago Tribune | October 20, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.

T he autumn harvest is underway in Illinois, and it's a juicy one despite the otherwise lousy year.

Corn and soybeans matured early, yields are mostly abundant and prices stand at the third-highest level ever, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Add to that a bumper crop of subsidy checks from the federal government, and Illinois farmers will be enjoying some of their highest incomes in years.

Last year, the U.S. government made more than $45 billion in direct payments to landowners and farm operators, much of it in pandemic relief that also was (at least in part) aimed at swaying voters ahead of the November elections. This year, the USDA expects to make $28 billion in direct payments. With its 27 million acres of farmland, Illinois is among the top recipients of those federal dollars.

For years, the Chicago Tribune editorial page has supported weaning agriculture from its dependence on government programs, which include everything from subsidizing crop insurance to diluting motor fuel with ethanol, which is mostly made from corn. These persistent subsidies not only cost taxpayers a fortune, but they distort the marketplace for food, encourage consolidation at the expense of smaller farm operations and contribute to obesity by promoting overconsumption of meat and dairy products.

The American farm lobby has a different point of view, unsurprisingly, and a history of success in farming the government. The same is true around the world: Government support for agricultural producers totals $540 billion a year, the United Nations estimates.

Now a common threat finally may be uniting the interests of taxpayers, policymakers and at least some producers.

Food production is one of the biggest contributors to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. Many common agricultural practices contribute to warming the planet: raising cattle, producing chemical fertilizers, clearing land to plant the same crops repeatedly. At the same time, food producers are acutely vulnerable to droughts, floods, severe storms and heat waves brought on by climate change.

Business as usual is not a realistic option for citizens whose taxes pay to support agriculture, or for those who make a living at it. The agricultural sector needs to help solve the problem of climate change rather than being a cause of it, and one of the keys is restructuring farm aid.

It's a daunting prospect, given how politicians and lobbyists tend to think, but shifting dollars from one farm program into another is far more doable in the short run than eliminating subsidies altogether.

And, especially abroad, there have been notable successes. China changed its programs to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the United Kingdom shifted subsidies to meet environmental goals and India has piloted a promising natural-farming policy. Even in the U.S., the Conservation Reserve Program pays out billions every year to remove sensitive acreage from production.

We're all beginning to better appreciate the vital importance of combating climate change effects that can be devastating, as we see today in the droughts now ravaging California and the Dakotas.

The next opportunity to reimagine federal programs is getting started through early work on the farm bill, a package of legislation approved every five years or so that sets U.S. agricultural policy for the next five years.

A new farm bill is expected in 2023. Let's make it green.

Print Headline: Nation is in needof green farm bill

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