Rewarding Degradation

We should not be rewarding people who degrade the land.  We should be encouraging people who improve the land.
Geologist David Montgomery

This comment was in the context of a discussion about topsoil erosion.  Few are aware of how significant this problem is.  As Montgomery puts it, “The problem of soil erosion is probably the biggest problem facing humanity that we don’t talk about.”

It takes millions of years to make topsoil, and without it most life on the earth couldn’t survive. It takes very little time, however,  to plow the soil so that a heavy rain can wash it into the nearest creek or river.

I just want to follow up on that first quote.  Our federal agricultural policies include heavily subsidized crop insurance for commodity farmers.  75% of the cost of the insurance is paid by the federal government (i.e us taxpayers), which guarantees a lucrative profit margin for the “insurers.”  Because the producer will benefit from federally subsidized prices if the crop comes in, and federally subsidized insurance payments if it does not, there is a perverse incentive to put marginal land into row crops.  If a hillside field gets washed away, then the producer collects the insurance money.  And with corn prices at record highs (in large part thanks to the government) there are incentives to plow every possible acre.

I’ll resist the urge to go on an extended rant about this.  Suffice it to say that shifting the producer’s risk to the public is promoting the destruction of a resource that is, for all intents and purposes, irreplaceable.

Using public funds to insure the crops of those who degrade the land to grow them is almost literally insane.


4 comments on “Rewarding Degradation

  1. shoreacres says:

    Using public funds to insure the crops of those who degrade the land to grow them is almost literally insane.

    Yes, it is. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of insanity abroad in the land these days. I’ll spare you my rants, except to say that, long before global warming does anyone in, we may have done ourselves in, in hundreds of utterly preventable ways.

    Honestly. I listen to the blather coming out of the US Congress and all I can think is, “These people are going to grab what they can, destroy the country and then skedaddle to wherever they’ve got the cash stashed.” There are some good people, some I would trust to hold my ham and cheese sandwich while I open my drink, but not many. Even the person I trusted might take a bite, and some of them take really, REALLY big bites.


    • Bill says:

      There are proposed amendments to the Farm Bill (which ought not exist, imo) that would address this particular insanity, but I’m not optimistic they’ll pass. This is just one of very many unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation. What starts out as an attempt to make things better, ends up making things worse, except for those who game the system and profit from it. Meanwhile the bureaucratic inertia makes it next to impossible to end a federal program once it’s started (like the Farm Bill, which–like lots of our federal monstrosities– started out as a piece of emergency legislation to help farmers survive the Great Depression).

      Surveys consistently show that Congress has an extremely low approval rating (about 18% IIRC) but surveys also consistently show that a substantial majority of folks give favorable approval to their own representative. The whole country seems to think that their guy is fine, but all the others are knuckleheads.

      It doesn’t hurt to rant about it every now and then. But it doesn’t seem to help either.


  2. Bob Braxton says:

    Being deceased, both my grandfathers are formers and they were, when living, farmers:
    maternal – tobacco (in NC, flue cured); paternal – beef (and earlier, “muskmellons” and maize corn). Although I myself since 1984 have occupied a high-density suburban county (over one million population – Fairfax, VA) somewhat spacious lot, we have composted these (almost) three decades, a tiny start on the hundreds or thousands or millions of years. Every time I go out and “turn,” the earthworms thank me.


    • Bill says:

      Bravo! To quote a wise man:

      Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
      that you will not live to harvest.
      Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
      Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
      Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
      every thousand years


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