This $20 Billion Handout Is Destroying the Environment

How to reform agricultural subsidies harming wildlife and polluting the planet.
(Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Sep 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Agricultural subsidies are, let’s face it, incredibly complicated and boring, and that’s the eternal problem with changing them: It’s just too hard to get the public to care even about a system that is, on its face, bizarre, destructive, and politically corrupt. It’s especially hard to care when the big losers are wildlife and the environment.

Well, OK, taxpayers lose, too. In the United States, agribusiness takes $20 billion worth of subsidies out of our pockets every year. Hardly any of that supports the production of healthier foods or benefits wildlife, the environment, or the public. But most of us would rather scrub toilets or run marathons than think about it. Meanwhile, agribusiness spent $138 million on lobbying in 2012, and another $90 million on federal campaign contributions to keep those handouts just the way they are.

And yet, it’s worth thinking hard about how to design a farm subsidy program that benefits wildlife, the public, and farmers alike. It’s worth it because—and forgive me for being the buzzkill on a day when you would rather be happily cleaning toilets—the survival of life on Earth depends on it.

Check out this 2010 TED talk by ecologist Jon Foley for the scary details. Or let me summarize: It’s bad enough that agriculture is already the single largest consumer of land and water, the biggest polluter of our waterways with suffocating quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the biggest driver of species extinctions and biodiversity loss on Earth. But here’s the really scary part: Farm output needs to double in this century as the human population grows to 11 billion people.

Where to begin the business of reforming subsidies to make our agricultural sector a little less insane? A new article in the journal PLOS Biology casts a skeptical eye on even the current limited incentives aimed at making agriculture less destructive. “My big beef,” said Andrew J. Tanentzap, the lead author and an ecosystems specialist at the University of Cambridge, "is that these European agri-environment schemes cost billions every year and nobody knows whether they work."

A typical problem is that incentive schemes reward farmers for taking actions rather than producing results. In one absurd case, the European Union was trying to encourage recovery of certain bird species by offering a subsidy for every nesting box farmers put up on their land. “So this farmer in Hungary nailed a nesting box on every tree,” said Tanentzap. “There were maybe 500 trees in this stand, where one or two nesting boxes would have been enough. That really crystallizes the perversity of the whole thing. You’re paying people for things that have no benefit whatever.”

Another EU program paid farmers to take land out of production and set it aside for wildlife. But because “no environmental outcome was explicitly targeted,” Tanentzap and his coauthors write, farmers tended to retire their worst land, “limiting environmental benefits.” (The U.S. counterpart, the Conservation Reserve Program, avoids this mistake, specifically rewarding farmers to set aside riparian buffers, wildlife habitat buffers, and other environmentally sensitive land. But Congress last year drastically scaled back the program—meanwhile maintaining federal ethanol subsidies, which have led many farmers to plant border-to-border corn on former CRP land.)

Even when conservation-minded incentives work, Tanentzap and his coauthors write, they may simply shift productivity in one place to someplace else. They might reduce U.S. production of soybeans, say, and indirectly cause the clearing of farmland from South American rainforests to grow additional soybeans.

So what kind of changes do we need to produce more food and at the same time benefit wildlife, clean water, and other environmental values? A good first step is to eliminate subsidies that fail to accomplish both objectives. For instance, price supports for milk production make farming marginal land “artificially profitable,” according to the PLOS Biology paper. A study in Wisconsin found that simply lowering the price support—never mind eliminating it—would reduce costs to consumers and taxpayers, cause thousands of acres to revert from marginal farmland to natural forest, create new wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and sequester more carbon. The story is much the same for subsidies that artificially support corn, sugar, and meat production.

Smarter incentives should aim at feeding the world and saving it, too, according to Tanentzap. It would probably require a mix of subsidies for beneficial practices and penalties for bad ones. For instance, it might reward farmers who use high-tech methods to apply water and nutrients exactly where their crops need them but penalize those who use too much water or fertilizer.

Broad visionary changes to the global farming system could make a lifesaving difference. For instance, researchers recently calculated that Brazil could save its beleaguered Atlantic Forest, protecting 10,000 plant species and more birds than in all of Europe, simply by shifting just 6.5 percent of agricultural subsidies.

So what are the chances that we can make those kinds of changes happen in time to save wildlife and the world? Here is the thing: Government officials pay attention to those who speak up. According to a 2013 industry survey in Europe, government officials considered lobbying up to 80 percent effective. But the lobbyists are almost all from industry. Unless the rest of us speak just as loudly, elected officials will continue selling wildlife, water quality, the soil, and the global climate down the river—and they’ll sell the river, too—in blind devotion to their twin gods, corporate profits, and election campaign largesse.

Pick up the phone and call your representatives in Congress now. It is our only hope.

P.S. Here’s one thing to talk about: Fifty years ago, Congress created The Land and Water Conservation Fund by unanimous vote. Now it’s intent on letting it expire at the end of this month. That’s a tragedy your voice can prevent.