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The Farm Bill: Water – Drink It, Or Export It? Oooh – I Know – Let’s Subsidize Water Exports!

1485351100_a5aad0f8ef.jpgHey – Atlanta and 85 Georgia counties won’t miss a little water, will they?

Even if they do – there’s always more in the Great Lakes, right? No shortage there – right?

Uhh – guess again.

But before we look at oodles of water, lets look at rivers of lucre – ours.

Out own taxpayers’ dollars -and how they pay to export our dwindling ground water overseas for the benefit of Cargill (America’s second-largest private company) and the privately held price-fixing cartel known as ADM – and to the detriment of farmers in the developing world, stomachs in the developing world, and Americans here at home.

This week the US Senate is scheduled to talk about new rules for the river of cash called “The Farm Bill”. As we discussed last week on the Lake, The Farm Bill (TFB) is an immense Federal program funneling our money to multiple programs somehow related to agriculture.

Like other Big Bills, TFB is actually a herd of separate “Titles” – each Title sets forth a wholly separate program within TFB. “Nutrition Programs” like Food Stamps, Federal school lunch programs, emergency food assistance, the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, and WIC (Women, Infant, and Children program) all live in Title IV. These programs take up nearly half (48.4% ) of total TFB spending, and rightly so – they serve the neediest in our society.

As we also discussed last week, TFB’s “Title I” – the Commodity Programs – hides the biggest prizes for the megacorps and Big Ag. Title I sucks up one-third (33.2%) of TFB money. The direct support payments for just five crops: cotton, corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans – amounted to nineteen billion dollars in 2006 (or 92% of the commodity crop payments under Title I). And – just the rest of our winner-take-all Federal programs under the Bushies – the big boys at the top get the goodies:

According to the Congressional Research Service, 84 percent of commodity support spending goes to the production of just five crops: corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans. Half of that money currently goes to just seven states that produce most of those commodities. The richest ten percent of farm-subsidy recipients (many of whom are corporations and absentee landowners who can hardly be classified as “actively engaged ” in growing crops) take in more than two-thirds of those payments.

A few other broad brushstrokes:

* Almost 50 percent of all commodity subsidies went to 5 percent of eligible farmers in 2005.
* Subsidies help the largest farms to acquire the best land and squeeze out smaller growers.
* The growth rate for jobs trailed the national average in nearly two-thirds of counties receiving heavy subsidies between 2000 and 2003, according to a recent report.

TFB started life as New Deal legislation intended to help farmers stay on the land without or destroying the land. That made sense in 1933 when FDR first signed TFB into law. Nearly seventy-five years ago, one in four Amercians lived on a farm.

Now that only one in 70 Americans live on a farm – and only one in around 700 live on full-time farms – who cares about US farms and farmland?

Simple – almost half the Continental US is farmland.

What happens with the earth, air, and water over one-half the Continental US will affect the land, air, and water over the other half of the Lower 48 – and beyond.

For an example, look at the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – from afar.

Nope, this “Zone” isn’t a Steven King novel – it’s actually a vast area of seafloor almost wholly devoid of aquatic life.

But – doesn’t Nature abhor a vacuum?

Yep – so around the Dead Zone, critters on the edge may wander in where their competitors don’t tread (or swim, or float).

And they die – they suffocate.

But how can fish and shrimps suffocate in water when they can’t drown?

Good question, gentle Lake dweller.

Fish and crabs and shrimp and lots ‘o plankton “breathe” the oxygen dissolved in water. In the Dead Zone, the same fertilizers and nutrients that grow food crops on land grow algae and other microbes. The microbes grow so well that they use up the dissolved oxygen in the water, leaving water the other critters can’t breathe in.

Hence the Dead Zone in the Gulf.

This year’s Dead Zone is merely the third largest on record – only around the size of New Jersey. The little fella only reaches from the mouth of the Mississippi…across Louisiana and westward to Texas.

Oh – the fertilizer and nutrients that feed the algae that grow so well they suffocate the other critters? Wonder why they come from?

Agricultural “runoff” – the fertilizers washed off farms and ultimately down the Mississippi.

Purdue University agricultural professor Otto Doering helped write the recent National Academy of Sciences report on how the Clean Water Act does (and does not) deal with nutrient (fertilizer) runoff in the nation’s rivers.

The Clean Water Act is pretty good at controlling pollution from a specific factory or outlet (so-called “point sources”). About ag runoff – not so good.

Today on NPR’s Living on Earth, Prof Doering explained:

Roughly 90 percent of the nutrient pollution coming down the Mississippi was from nonpoint sources—largely agriculture.

LOE: The Academy report says there aren’t water quality standards for many stretches of the Mississippi and even monitoring data is lacking or not well coordinated. Doering says the Clean Water Act has not yet been fully applied to the problem of nutrient runoff. The result is a dead zone where marine life can’t live in low-oxygen waters where the river hits the Gulf of Mexico.

Well – who cares?

We can just get shrimp from shrimp farms, right?

[Uhh – if you want to eat all the antibiotics used in shrimp farming – I guess you can eat farmed shrimp. I’ll stick with the organic veggies, thanks.]

Well, here’s where Georgia and Atlanta come in. And their water – or the lack of it.

As we on the Lake know better than most, on our planet our foods require water.

As do we.

Remember the river of money in TFB? Well, Industrial Ag swallows most of that cash river. No surprise – Industrial Ag purchased the key Congresscritters/Senators who write TFB, and they get what they pay for.

What does Industrial Ag do with that river of cash?

Well, Industrial Ag harvests money – by selling for export whenever possible (grabbing additional Federal subsidies from US export subsidies via the Export-Import Bank and the like).

Without the Commodity Programs, the US would grow far less cotton and sugar – other climates in the world are better suited to these thirsty, water-loving crops.

The Commodity Program also supports US alfalfa commodity crop prices. Here on the West Coast, subsidized alfalfa farmers on the upper reaches of the Klamath RIver suck up so much water that they killed most of the 2002 Klamath River salmon run:

[In 2002, a] huge fish kill occurred on the lower Klamath, the tribe’s ancestral grounds. About 35,000 chinook and coho salmon and steelhead went belly up, and the stench of their decomposing carcasses tainted the normally salubrious air of the river canyon for days.

Hey – but that’s just one river, right?

Well, yes – but the story repeats wherever commodity crops grow.

That grain we subsidize Cargill to raise and sell – that corn we subsidize ADM to process – the sugar that we pay incredibly wealthy sugar barons to grow by draining the Everglades?

The cotton the Bosworth family grow for export – with subsidized Federal water in California?

We’re exporting America’s groundwater – and surface water. In California, we’re overdrafting underground water so fast that each year only 85 percent of the groundwater can be replenished.

The massive Ogallala groundwater reservoir stretches from the Great Plains to the Southwest, underlying eight states. The Ogallala contains more water than the Colorado river would carry in 200 years – and we’re draining the Ogallala to grow subsidized commodity crops. As of 2002, we’d already depleted 18 years worth of Colorado River flow – or about a tenth of the reservoir – by pumping out water faster than it is replaced.

Oh – and how are the aquifers in Georgia and the Southeast? Or in the Great Lakes?

Well, in Georgia they’re talking of 80 days of water remaining in the reservoirs.

Is the drought in Georgia (and Lake Superior) caused by TFB? No. But TFB directly subsidizes the breakneck depletion of our national water resources, putting our future and our children’s at direct risk.

This was bad policy in the Dust Bowl.

Surely – seventy-five years later, we can do better. When we can push Industrial Ag out of the catbird seat on the Congressional Farm Bill committees, we will.

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Kirk Murphy

Kirk Murphy

terrestrial obligate aerobe with endoskeleton (bony) and bilateral symmetry.

chordate, bipedal, warm-blooded, mammalian, placental (origin), opposable thumbs.

not (yet) extinct.

indigenous habitat: California Live Oak.

current habitat: Central California Coast (most northerly aspect).... 'northwest of the new world, east of the sea'

potential habitats: all potential habitats critically endangered (due to global climate change).

ailurophilic - hence allergic rhinitic.