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Mono-Cropping with Government Subsidized Soy and Corn a Threat to Health and the Environment

Alternating contour strips of soybeans and corn on a farm in southern Wisconsin.

Soybeans planted between two corn fields in Wisconsin.

Stop Subsidizing the Wrong Food Crops

by Dr. Mercola

As farming has transitioned from a once localized industry to an international one, it’s brought with it a new set of challenges for U.S. farmers. Spurred in part by a growing demand for biofuel, along with federal subsidy programs, about 180 million additional acres of corn and soybeans have been planted around the world over the last decade.

In the U.S., this two-crop cycle of corn and soybeans has become the dominant model in the Midwest, thanks to the federal farm policy that subsidizes these crops, with devastating consequences to human health and the environment.

Rotating between these two genetically engineered (GE) crops is problematic for many reasons. By leaving fields bare for much of the nongrowing season, erosion levels are high, as is pollution from fertilizer and pesticides, which are applied heavily. Pollution runoff from Midwest farms is so bad that it contributes to the “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water that’s killing marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.

Even the farmers, who experienced record-high harvests in 2016, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), are in trouble. The abundance has led to an oversupply that has driven down prices, such that “U.S. farm incomes are expected to drop to their lowest levels since 2002.” [1]

In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would be making more than $7 billion in payments to bail out farmers due to market downturns that occurred during the 2015 crop year. [2] The payments were intended to “provide reassurance to Americans’ farm families” affected by low commodity prices and unfavorable growing conditions. But further bail outs and subsidizing of the problematic two-crop system are only going to worsen the problem.

Instead of subsidizing this unsustainable model, federal farm policy should provide incentives for farmers to diversify their crops, which UCS found could lead to remarkable benefits all-around.

Crop Diversification Benefits Farmers and the Environment

The UCS report highlighted modified cropping systems being studied by Iowa State University researchers. They’ve compared the typical two-year corn-soybean rotation system with two more diversified systems: a three-year program that adds in oats with a cover crop of red clover in the cool season and a four-year system that adds in oats with an alfalfa cover crop followed by another year of alfalfa for harvest.

Cover crops more than double carbon inputs into the soil, [3] and when you add carbon back into the soil the carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi that eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than humic acid at retaining water. This means you naturally limit your irrigation needs and make your garden or fields more resilient during droughts. Cover crops also improve soil structure and reduce erosion.

So, not surprisingly, the Iowa State research found the longer, more diversified crop rotations led to improved yields and profits with less chemical usage and pollution. Specifically, UCS reported that, compared to the corn-soy rotation, the more diversified systems: [4]

  • Increased average corn yields by 2 percent to 4 percent, and average soybean yields by 10 percent to 17 percent
  • Were just as profitable
  • Reduced herbicide use by 25 percent to 51 percent
  • Reduced herbicide runoff in water by 81 percent to 96 percent
  • Reduced nitrogen fertilizer application by 43 percent to 57 percent

This is impressive, but it doesn’t end there. UCS then analyzed what would happen if diverse crop rotations and no tillage (plowing) were adopted in the 25 Iowa counties with the most erodible soils. This relatively simple swap led to dramatic improvements, including: [5]

  • Reducing soil erosion by 91 percent compared with tilled corn-soy
  • Saving taxpayers and downstream communities $196 million to $198 million per year in surface water cleanup costs
  • Net reductions in heat-trapping gases valued at $74 million to $78 million per year

The report found that diverse crop rotations could eventually be adopted on 20 percent to 40 percent of Iowa’s farmland, without changing crop prices, and would reduce soil erosion by 88 percent compared with the current predominant tilled corn-soy model. “Taxpayers would gain a total of $241 million to $505 million in environmental benefits every year,” UCS noted. [6]

The Des Moines Register reported on one farmer, Seth Watkins, who has already transitioned to crop diversification, grazing cattle on pasture and even restoring hundreds of his acres to natural prairie and wildlife reserves — with improved profits. “My job as a farmer is not to produce; my job is to care for the land,” Watkins said. “And when I do this properly, this provides for all of us.” [7]

Federal Farm Policies Created the Disastrous Corn-Soybean Cropping System

While it would seem that farmers would be scrambling to adopt a more diversified cropping approach, many barriers stand in their way. There can be significant costs in the short term to stray from their usual rotation, for instance, and markets for oats and other grains are not as developed as those for corn and soy.

Further, many farmers lack the practical know-how to convert to more complex crop rotations, as well access to research showing that doing so would be beneficial. Public funding for such initiatives is scarce, according to UCS, which also pointed to major crop insurance and credit constraints: [8]

“Until recently, federal crop insurance programs have discouraged complex rotations. In 2014, Congress extended coverage to diversified farmers with a new Whole Farm Revenue Protection program. But many county insurance agents lack training on this program and may not recommend it to farmers who could benefit from it. And lenders unfamiliar with the potential profitability of longer rotation systems may be unwilling to make the loans that farmers need in order to adopt them.” Farmers may also receive premium discounts and higher premium subsidies when they plant corn and soybean acres. [9] Unfortunately, only 2.6 percent of U.S. croplands are planted with cover crops. [10]

Food & Environment Reporting Network noted that nearly half of farmers who say they’re interested in trying cover crops hold back because of concerns about crop insurance, and a 2015 National Wildlife Federation survey found “over one-third reported that they’d been told by an agent or adjuster that using cover crops could put a claim at risk of denial.” [11,12]

Kansas regenerative farmer Gail Fuller experienced this firsthand, when his federally funded crop insurance company denied his six-figure claim for compensation during the 2012 drought. Their basis was Fuller’s use of cover crops, which the company requires be killed off before the cash-crop is planted. High winds prevented Fuller from doing so. He took the case to court and was eventually given the payment, but there’s still a perception among farmers that using cover crops could put their insurance payments at risk.

Since federal farm policies helped create the problem, they should also be part of the solution, which is why the UCS report suggested policymakers should expand incentives and strengthen up front financial support to encourage farmers to shift to diverse crop rotations.

They also advise strengthening crop insurance coverage for diversified farms while increasing public support for research and demonstration projects on diverse rotations. [13] “I don’t know that I need to be subsidized for doing the right thing. I just want us to stop subsidizing the wrong things,” Watkins told The Des Moines Register. [14]

Grass Fed Beef, Bison Are Part of the Solution

By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely, and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive. This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good. Once in the earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and adds to the soil’s fertility.

While still thought of as a niche market, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York released a report showing that grass fed systems could be expanded — enough so to compete with the polluting and inhumane concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) currently supplying the majority of U.S. beef. [15] Two major hurdles stand in their way, the first being CAFOs, which have access to more efficient supply chains and slaughterhouses.

For instance, farmers must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and laws place special restrictions on grass fed slaughtering. If a grass fed rancher doesn’t have access to a slaughterhouse, he cannot stay in business. This shrewd strategy effectively maintains the CAFO status quo because grass fed farmers are often forced to ship their animals hundreds of miles for “processing” — a move that’s both costly and stressful.

Imports of grass fed beef, which make up 75 percent to 80 percent of U.S. grass fed beef sales by value, are another hurdle. Australia and Brazil can produce grass fed beef at a lower cost, as their climate allows for year-round grazing. U.S. consumers may not know the grass fed beef they purchase isn’t from the U.S., however, because as long as a piece of imported beef passes through a USDA-inspected plant, it can be labeled as a “Product of the USA.”

These hurdles, and others, are not insurmountable. The report found that the U.S. grass fed beef market could grow from niche to mainstream if the following actions are taken: [16]

  • The grass fed industry should focus on producing high-quality, grass fed beef year-round
  • Stronger standards for the grass fed label, accompanied by consumer education about grass fed beef
  • Utilize existing infrastructure used for conventional beef to “unlock supply chain inefficiencies”
  • Establish well-managed, scaled-up finishing systems to produce grass fed beef at low cost

Although not addressed in the report, bison could also be part of the solution. The National Bison Association, which recently launched a “Bison Hump Day” campaign to encourage people to eat bison meat on Wednesdays and increase the bison population in North America to 1 million in the next decade. As with grass fed beef, free-ranging bison also have the potential to increase natural grasslands and reduce pollution in the U.S. Dave Cater, executive director of the National Bison Association, told Delicious Living: [17]

“We think that more bison on the land is a good thing, not only for people that love to eat bison and people who love to raise bison, but for the land itself. This is the animal that helped shape the ecosystem of North America. We think that bringing more bison back helps restore acres of native grasslands and range lands.”

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