Richard Conniff | Takepart
How to reform agricultural subsidies harming wildlife and polluting the planet.
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.
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.
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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, the thirstiest consumer of water, 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.”
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Another EU program paid farmers to take land out 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.)