Technology, Ecology, and the American Farmer

Scientific advances promise more bountiful harvests and a cleaner environment. But farm subsidies and technophobia could block the way.

|

In the 1950s," recalls farm consultant Eldon Hans, running his hand through his white hair, "we were canning peas and sweet corn and pumpkins in East Iowa. Lots of other vegetables and many fruits were grown locally. Most farms had a few livestock and poultry. The field crops were mixed, and rotated from year to year. It was the kind of balanced, varied production that many agricultural experts now just yearn for."

But fat federal field corn subsidies came along and did away with all that. Corn requires a week or two of hard work at each end of the summer and then nothing but a little casual watching; specialized crops can be a lot more painstaking. Corn prices are set high, and guaranteed, by the government; other crops vary in price like most things vary. It's little wonder, then, that farmers in East Iowa, and in lots of other places across the country, quit growing mixed crops.

All those canneries that Eldon Hans remembers have moved to Minnesota, where the short growing season prevents corn from pushing out competing production. And like most of the rest of the country, Iowans get the bulk of their fresh vegetables from the vast corporate operations based in Florida and California. There's not a reason in the world that dirt-rich Iowans should be eating trucked-in strawberries and string beans picked seven days earlier during the summer, but they are. Because most of the state has become monocropped in corn. As you crisscross the endless rolling hills, king corn—sponsored by federal payments that have nearly doubled the market price in some years—stretches from horizon to horizon, farm after farm, season after season.

Agriculture this unbalanced can reduce the quality of output available to consumers—there is no fully adequate substitute for fresh local produce. It has made farming more cyclical and insecure, as a grower's fortunes often rise and fall on one crop price. It can be very hard on local economies that have lost much of their diversity, becoming truly one-horse towns. And it has brought real problems environmentally.

The traditional route to high farm productivity was to rotate various crops to keep humus and soil-nutrient levels in balance. But very high subsidies for a handful of "program crops" have made them so unnaturally lucrative and secure, compared to alternatives, that rotation is falling off. As a result, many farm counties are characterized by excessive concentration on a narrow range of agricultural output. From his extensive studies of various cropping regimens, Iowa State Cooperative Extension agent Mike Duffy concludes that "all the financial rewards currently favor the most environmentally damaging practices."

In addition to the overconcentration on favored crops that subsidies bring, there are more-specific problems with current federal programs. For one thing, payments are made to farmers on the basis of the total acreage they devote to a program crop over a period of years. If a corn farmer rotates his fields with soybeans, oats, or pasture for conservation purposes, his "base" for corn falls, reducing the area he is eligible to harvest in future years. "Government programs kick you in the teeth if you try to follow a rotation-based system," says Duffy.

To save their teeth, most growers of corn and the other supported farm products have taken to monocropping—the same kind of plants on the same land, year after year—and pouring on fertilizers and pesticides to try to maintain soil fertility. That is costly, and it can have untoward environmental effects, including increased insect immunity to pesticides, excessive leaching of fertilizers into watersheds and aquifers, and possible buildups of chemicals in the soil, water, and food chain.

In September, the National Academy of Sciences released a major study concluding that federal farm subsidies encourage overuse of fertilizer and pesticides by rewarding maximum yields per acre rather than maximum overall return in the marketplace. The NAS also pointed out that farm policy discourages diversification into other crops not covered by government programs. The chairman of the research committee that wrote the report said the finding of government culpability was the most important conclusion of the study. "It is these programs that really restrict experimentation, the changing…to alternative crops" and other conservation practices, explained John Pesek.

The over-intensification problem is aggravated not only by subsidies but also by other provisions of U.S. farm programs. In an attempt to contain the unwanted agricultural surpluses that subsidies inexorably bring, lawmakers have increasingly relied on a strategy of land-idling. The 1985 farm bill included measures to take tens of millions of acres of U.S. farmland out of production for periods ranging from 1 to 10 years. To keep farm income up while this was taking place, direct payments to farmers were increased.

These measures had a very perverse combined effect. On the one hand, the supply of available farmland was constricted. On the other, payments for each bushel actually grown were very generous. Farmers responded exactly as you would expect—they poured chemicals and tractor time onto those acres that remained in circulation and got higher yields that nearly canceled out the lower acreage. That defeated the lawmakers' intent of cutting output. It also souped up agricultural intensity to unnatural levels—the last thing to be desired from an environmental point of view.

So long as politicians insist on handling the surplus dilemma by reducing the supply of agricultural land instead of attacking the problem at its root—by cutting subsidies—farmers will continue to substitute chemical and energy inputs for acreage. The strange result is that in this country, where we have more rich earth than we know what to do with, much of it is tilled as frantically, and harshly, as if we were some soil-shy rocky island.

Another effect of high farm subsidies combined with mandatory land "set-asides" is to encourage sod-breaking on fragile lands. For instance, the sagebrush lands of West Texas and the sandy prairies of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming had for most of this century been considered too frail for tillage. Under market conditions, they would rarely have been used for anything but grazing. But thanks largely to federal incentives in the late 1970s and early 1980s more than 10 million acres of this highly erodable land were plowed under for wheat and corn.

Much of it gave out within a few years, but a safety net yawned below: In 1985 the Department of Agriculture set up a "Conservation Reserve" program to buy out of production up to 45 million acres of "fragile" lands—three-quarters of them planted in program crops—for a 10-year period. Most of the sodbusters jumped on board. In that way they extended their economic bounty another decade, proving they were right to bet the feds would make their environmentally and otherwise imprudent decision economically lucrative.

Tarkio, Missouri, farmer Blake Hurst notes the perversity he observed in his county: "What programs like the…Conservation Reserve really do is remove the risk from farming highly erodible, unproductive land.…When times are good, plow it up and let it blow or wash away. Don't worry about the bad times; you can always rent it to Uncle Sam."

Similar whackings to Mother Earth have been administered by another portion of the U.S. farm program: the disaster aid regimen. Established in 1973, federal disaster aid allows growers whose harvests are stunted or who are prevented from planting by "conditions beyond the control of the producer" to collect payments that frequently total many hundreds of millions of dollars. (In the 1988 doozy, nearly $4 billion in drought aid was handed out.) In addition, the government farm credit agencies routinely make billions of dollars in "loans" (many of which go delinquent) available to farmers in areas hit by flood, dryness, or similar inclemency.

The problem is, the easy availability of free insurance encourages more exploitation of dicey lands, riskier planting decisions, and less care in management. Agricultural economist Bruce Gardner points out that "corn is more susceptible to lack of water than is grain sorghum; but if all goes well, corn is a more profitable crop." With disaster aid guarantees behind them, dryland farmers will gamble on the bigger payoff instead of planting the crop that makes most sense in their area. The sensible old arid-region practice of leaving land fallow every few years in order to let subsoil moisture build up has fallen off for the same reason. Disaster aid, Gardner writes, "can be characterized as an anticonservation policy."

One of the clearest examples of the sloppiness that disaster payments can bring on was a little program that existed until 1980 to indemnify beekeepers for their losses. Content with the assurance that the USDA would make good any losses, some apiarists didn't even bother to move their hives from orchards and fields when they were being sprayed with pesticides.

Another way the federal government has sometimes underwritten ecological foolishness is through its irrigation policies. Large federal water projects are almost never self-financing. Some are selling water to farmers for $3 an acre-foot when its marginal cost is 200 times that. That leads to wastage, depletion of sometimes irreplaceable supplies, less water available for other uses such as human consumption, and sometimes damage to soils from dissolved salts left behind on overwatered land.

Federal water projects have also distorted regional farming patterns. Without subsidized water, California would be relatively unimportant agriculturally; with it, it is our number-one farm state. Much of California's agriculture replaced production that had previously taken place elsewhere. Its large cotton and rice industries were stolen from the Old South. Most of its corn and wheat operations would have remained in the Middle-West but for the cheap drinks. Its extensive cattle ranches pushed out operations from both the South and Midwest (an incredible 30 percent of California's state water production is now used to irrigate pasture). Its massive produce farms overpowered local operations all across the country.

And California is but one example. Maine's potato industry has similarly been dashed by competition from irrigated spud ranches in Idaho and Washington.

The frequent misallocations of the water projects have been recognized for some time, and slow movement toward more efficient pricing of federal water is beginning. But that alone will not solve the irrigation follies. Irrigation has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, and much of the most recent increase has come through private investments. Many of these projects are sensible, a kind of self-insurance against drought. But some draw over-heavily on nonreplaceable ground water, particularly in the northern Great Plains. The culprit here is not a federal water authority but rather farm price supports set so high over market levels they overpower any incentive to conserve the water for future use. Economically, it now makes sense for some farmers to pump their wells dry, collect fat federal payments, and retire off the proceeds.

But, of course, this is not wise long-range policy. Former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture William Lesher points out that "from 1929 to 1978, 60 percent of the increase in irrigated acreage occurred on the principal program crops. We are mining and depleting our water resources to produce more of the agricultural products for which we already have burdensome supplies."

It is clear that rolling back agricultural subsidies would bring a more flexible, somewhat less intense agriculture that would not only be less costly for farmers and more varied and responsive to consumers, but also gentler on the earth. So, as you might expect, environmentalists have shown increasing interest in farm questions. (Current EPA chief William Reilly made agricultural topics a special concern in his previous position as head of the Conservation Foundation.) Environmentalists have vowed to be active in the drafting of the next farm bill, and in the current atmosphere much of the process could be environmentally driven. "I'll be very surprised if environmentalists don't come up with a common agenda and a strong effort to see it passed in the next farm bill," says Ken Crook of the Center for Resource Economics, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group active on agricultural issues.

Unfortunately, most environmental groups are much more interested in strapping controls on farming than they are in trying to help put its economic incentives in order. They are more likely to throw regulatory tantrums on issues like chemical use than to seriously pursue the more lasting solution of putting farming onto a self-sustaining, market-sensitive path.

Environmentalism's relationship to farming has always been ambivalent. As several farmers told me, many people love to have open space around them, but they don't want anyone to go out and earn a living on it. Blake Hurst speaks generally for tillers when he says, "We think of the environment as something we have to battle. We have nasty insects, destructive windstorms, dangerous floods to be resisted. It's a lot easier to be an environmentalist when you live in an air-conditioned house and commute in a comfortable car to an office, when you don't have to worry about parasites in your meat or worms in your pickles."

Soybean grower Jack Fischer of Pomeroy, Iowa, cites the example of the open drainage ditches on his spread that require cleaning out every 40 years or so. "Some environmental groups see that as destroying natural habitat, but that ditch was dug by a farmer, and its purpose is to provide an outlet for runoff." In the past, the government has bought various forms of conservation compliance from farmers with its outlays. Increasingly, however, environmentalists are pushing toward just mandating changes.

Maryland chicken producer Simpson Dunahoo worried to me about the "grave, growing threat to farmers, and private property owners generally" represented by so-called critical areas legislation pushed through in his state a couple years ago (and replicated in many others). It requires, for instance, that any land within 1,000 feet of tidal water have no more than 1 house per 20 acres. No state compensation is offered for what effectively amounts to a taking of valuable land. Other measures forbid drainage of low spots in fields or filling in marshes, again without compensation.

A more egregious example of the same phenomenon was related to me by Johnny Cooper, the Agricultural Extension agent of Fort Bend County, Texas. Seems six to eight specimens of a rare wild fowl known as the Attwater's Greater Prairie Chicken had been sighted in some thickets on private land in that farm county. The local Farm Bureau chapter proposed setting aside a large chunk of land extending at a radius of one to six miles from the site to protect the birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, stunned local farmers by declaring that within a massive pie-shaped piece of land bordered by the San Bernard and Brazos rivers and U.S. Highway 59—an incredible 250,000 acres of private land in all—use of most pesticides and certain other farming activity would be flatly forbidden.

When that decision becomes final, the upshot will be to effectively shut down farming in one-quarter of this heavily agricultural county. "Either that or make liars of a lot of fellows," says Cooper, alluding to the fact that the farmer's word is often the only way of knowing what he's put down on a field. One other possibility, locals sigh, is that the little chicken band will get a severe case of lead poisoning late some night.

Uncompensated appropriation of the use of private land is becoming one of the most contentious issues dividing farmers and environmentalists, but there are other points of friction as well. Activists in Massachusetts with goals like keeping hogs and chickens in "family units" and banning any animal surgery that causes discomfort recently tried to place rigid restrictions on livestock production in that state. When a referendum on the subject went to ballot, the American Farm Bureau and other groups weighed in with paid advertising emphasizing the harm such measures would cause family farmers, and the measure was defeated by a 71 percent majority.

In other areas, however, environmentalists have had more success in influencing public opinion. Chemical usage is a prime example. A drumbeat of cautionary reports, some responsible, some not, has left many consumers concerned about food safety due to alleged pesticide residues. As scientific knowledge improves, farmers are using smaller and smaller chemical doses, and, on the whole, there is no question but that America's current food supply is safer and more wholesome than it has ever been. That fact is not reflected, however, in most environmentalist reports.

The recent case of Alar and apples was representative of the kind of harm done to both farming and the public interest by environmental extremism. Based on some grossly distorted science, and heedless of the near disappearance of the Alar preservative due to voluntary measures by apple growers, a group called the Natural Resources Defense Council panicked parents all across the country with claims that normal apple consumption could threaten children with cancer. Apples were removed from schools, and apple sales plummeted, doing grave damage to growers. A great many youngsters who had been eating wholesome snacks and desserts switched to something gummier. Forced to choose between strident negative claims and complicated rebuttals, "the public banned Alar," as one congressman put it. The politicians and EPA bureaucrats will soon follow suit.

There are numerous other instances where calculated incitement of public hysteria by environmentalists resulted in over-hasty banishment of chemical compounds important to agriculture. Often, no thought at all is given to what might replace the compound in question, and in some cases the substitute has been considered even less healthful than the criticized target. Government certification of agricultural chemicals has become so involved, taking two to five years, that it increasingly does not pay manufacturers to keep their products on the market unless they are big sellers.

As a result, specialized compounds and bug controls for minor crops are disappearing, to the alarm of growers—not because they are unsafe but because sales aren't high enough to justify undertaking exhaustive environmental approval. Earlier this year, for instance, DuPont said it was discontinuing phosdrin, a vegetable insecticide, and azodrin, a cotton and sugar cane pesticide, because it wasn't cost-effective to spend the millions of dollars necessary to reregister them.

Another offshoot of unbalanced chemical alarmism has been the substitution of foreign-grown food for domestic production. When necessary chemicals become too costly or too hard to obtain, some crops cease being raised in the United States. The irony is, they are replaced by supplies grown in countries where monitoring of the safety of agricultural chemicals is far more lax. This is an important source of the increasing transplantation of American fruit and vegetable production to countries like Mexico and Chile.

Farmers themselves are pretty sensitive to the effects of agricultural chemicals. After all, in most cases they have to apply the chemicals themselves, and many farmers pointed out to me that it is their family drinking water that is affected if buildup becomes a problem. Since 1981, all farmers must pass a detailed test and be certified before they can buy and use restricted pesticides. Better, more selective chemicals that are used at rates just a fraction of what prevailed 10 years ago are now coming to market, and much more measured application is being practiced.

New techniques and technology promise further improvements. For instance, researchers have found that herbicides dissolved in vegetable oils are much more effective, allowing equivalent control with just one-fourth of current usage. Application equipment is now being designed. Forthcoming electrostatic sprayers will increase delivery efficiency even further—electrically charged droplets will wrap themselves around plants, allowing ultra-low-concentration solutions.

Since pesticide costs can total as much as 15 percent of a farmer's production expenses—billions of dollars a year nationwide—and only about 20 to 25 percent of conventional spray reaches its desired target, these improved practices can bring farmers dramatic cost savings while reducing environmental worries. The next stage, well underway, will be to attach cameras and other image sensors to the tool bars of tractors and set up a computer to digitize leaf outlines, turning herbicide nozzles on when it sees a weed and off when it doesn't.

Researchers at Purdue University have already developed color sensors that can assess the amount of organic matter in soil. Attached to fertilizer or herbicide rigs, they can calibrate the exact dosage of chemical to the earth being passed over. The technology is now being licensed and should be commercialized within about two years.

Other work by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is examining ways to encapsulate fertilizer or pesticides in starch or water-resistant membranes, so a controlled amount applied directly to the soil will be released slowly, as plants need it, instead of in heavy conventional doses that can wash or leach away. More-fundamental research is aiming to give plants the ability to fix their own nitrogen—extracting it from the atmosphere where it is abundant, as legumes, vetches, and some other plants do naturally—so that no artificial fertilizer will even need to be applied. New technologies like these offer far more promise in solving environmental problems than any regulatory strategy.

Even absent bold new tools, farmers have begun to vastly improve their utilization of fertilizer and chemicals. Delaware vegetable farmer Charles West, for instance, makes four separate fertilizer applications on each crop of spinach, because multiple small applications are much more likely to actually reach the plant (and less likely to leach into the groundwater) than one big dose. Cover crops are also planted on almost all fields over the winter to help keep soil nutrient levels high. "If for no other reason than cost, you won't find anybody just dumping stuff on their fields anymore," says wheat grower David Magness.

And reducing use is usually all that is necessary. Agronomists have shown that most of today's farm chemicals are easily degraded by natural microbes present in the top four feet of soil. Provided they are not overapplied or too heavily watered in, modern chemicals could be used indefinitely in most places without threat of buildup.

Probably the single best way to get farmers to reduce their use of chemicals would be to free farm prices, so that growers would profit from paying more careful attention to their input costs. There is reason for hope on this increasingly fractious issue, if only environmentalists would acknowledge the new research on dosages and delivery systems and accept the confluence of economic and environmental interests when it comes to farm chemicals. Cost-driven conservation makes every farmer an antipollution force, but it only takes hold when farmers are exposed to the free market's powerful incentives to pinch pennies. One more voice on the side of subsidy reform could make a difference here.

Unfortunately, environmentalist sentiment seems increasingly unwilling to acknowledge the concept of an "acceptable" dose greater than none and ever more hostile to considerations of cost-effectiveness. Any discussion of the growing conflict between farming and environmentalism must ultimately look deeper than the subsidy problem and the economic divergences and consider the philosophical split. Modern environmentalism is slowly grinding its way toward a zero-tolerance standard which allows little room for compromise with productive goals. It frequently exploits, and feeds, what appears to be a rising antiscience, anti-material progress feeling among parts of the general public. In too many instances, critical agricultural advancement is being thwarted by environmentalism's opposition to new technology and sometimes even to research.

An example would be food irradiation, an efficient, scientifically uncontroversial method of preserving and sterilizing edible products without the use of chemicals. In a process that might be thought of as somewhere between microwave cooking and the airport luggage x-ray, low-dosage ionizing energy can be used to kill harmful organisms without leaving any radioactive residue behind. All meat products, for instance, could immediately be certified free of trichona, toxoplasmosis, salmonella, and other dangerous microorganisms via irradiation.

Irradiation is already used to sterilize food eaten by some hospital patients and by astronauts, as well as to make products like cosmetics and medical supplies. The United States Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and other regulatory groups have approved it for use on a range of commercial foods in countries around the globe. Hardly any food is so treated in the United States, however, because environmental and "consumer" groups have been able to mobilize public dread and opposition to any process with the word radiation in it, particularly since the Chernobyl panic.

One of the agricultural scientists I interviewed suggested we are at the beginning of a new era which will increasingly see the substitution of botanical for mineral resources—plastics supplanting metals, plant and animal "factories" synthesizing a growing range of chemical compounds, new reliance on biopharmaceuticals, cultivated energy sources, and so on. Some of the procedures involved—genetic engineering, hormone therapy, cloning—are very new and make people nervous. There is little question, however, that the future will require more, not less, expertise in biological exploitation and management. Undue fretfulness in this area will mean lost opportunities and surrender of leadership on the newest science frontier to better-prepared competitors.

Some optimism is in order—current developments in bioresearch are exciting on several fronts. Originally, most agricultural study was oriented toward making farmers more productive and giving them new products. Most of that work is now done commercially rather than publicly, although the government does continue basic production research.

The second big push in agricultural research was to find new uses for agricultural products. Researchers continue to come up with fresh applications—biodegradable plastics made from vegetable starches are gaining attention now, as are industrial oils derived from plants, printing inks and engine fuels made from soybeans, alcohol fuels distilled from grains, and so forth. An entirely new commercial crop—bamboo-like kenaf—is now entering production as an annually harvestable paper source. Researchers are even beginning to talk about making plastic films that could be used, for instance, as floor coverings from the casein in milk.

But the biggest hunt in agricultural research today is for new answers to health and safety questions. The latest research offers something for everyone—better quality and wholesomeness for consumers, improved efficiency for farmers, more benign ecological effects for environmentalists. Scientists are on the verge of identifying plants that can "eat" toxic compounds out of the soil, plants that can fertilize themselves, even plants that produce their own natural insecticides internally. Farm animals are becoming healthier and more efficient. Insects are being combated naturally through use of sterilization and other processes.

Development of biological controls to replace inorganic pesticides is an area of particular emphasis. Biocontrol is not new. For 100 years, U.S. scientists have been collecting, studying, and then releasing natural predators that attack nuisance weeds or bugs. The first microbial pesticide, a bacteria that infects Japanese beetles, was first distributed back in 1939 and can be bought by home gardeners at any hardware store under the name Milky Spore Disease.

But as scientists have begun more active measures to find and create natural pesticides via genetic engineering, even biological control has begun to be attacked by environmentalists. Earlier this year, the EPA gave permission to Crop Genetics International, a Maryland biotechnology company, to plant corn seeds inoculated with a bacteria that will live within the plant and kill any caterpillars that try to eat it. The technique could make the U.S. crop resistant to a borer that does $400 million of damage every year, even after farmers apply $50 million of pesticides. If the system works, the pesticides can be scrapped, and scientists estimate that Nebraska alone will have a 25 percent increase in its corn yields.

The biological agents tested so far are all variants of naturally occurring organisms. Before they are approved, manufacturers have to demonstrate that the agents won't kill beneficial insects in addition to their targets and that they won't spread to neighboring weeds, giving them unwanted predator immunity. If allowed to develop, a clutch of these new measures could bring dramatic containment of insect and weed threats without heavy use of invasive chemicals.

Farmers are enthusiastic, sensing a solution to the triple squeeze of decreasing availability, increasing costs, and possible environmental effects of chemicals. "The chemical companies tell us that to put a new pesticide in the market costs so much that they have to pass it on to us. Five years ago it used to cost me $60 an acre to spray cotton. Now it costs $120 to $130," says one cotton farmer. "We urgently need a different approach," agrees another.

Environmental groups, however, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society, have tried to block commercialization of the Crop Genetics product. Other nonchemical systems that would cause natural viruses to break out among crop pests, or stop their digestive tracts from functioning so they starve to death, have also met resistance from environmentalists who believe much more regulatory control is called for. The group Friends of the Earth has labeled bio-engineering "Russian Roulette."

Plant disease research may be thought of as at a threshold similar to when the new process of vaccination began to be used to protect humans. But rather than treating this as an exciting scientific refinement that requires normal laboratory precautions, many environmentalists insist biotechnology is a dangerous leap into wholly new territory. It is not. The National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Scientific Evaluation of the Introduction of Genetically Modified Microorganisms and Plants into the Environment concluded in a major report released in September that the process presents no unusual or unmanageable risks.

The technological progress made in improving and supplanting farm chemicals has been mirrored by positive developments in animal husbandry. Over the last 30 years half the fat has been taken off U.S. pork. Loin pork is now equivalent in cholesterol and fat to chicken, a very healthful improvement. Similar progress is being made with beef. If allowed to proceed, cloning, gene transfer, artificial insemination, and other biotechnology could improve leanness by another 50 percent.

Waste and costs in animal production are also coming down. In 1950 it took 84 days to raise a 4-pound broiler chicken, with a feed conversion rate of 3.25 pounds of feed for every pound of meat produced. Today, thanks to poultry inoculation, scientific breeding, controlled diets, and other factors, it takes 42 days, with a 1.9 feed conversion. Again, agricultural science has brought more efficiency, fewer unwanted byproducts.

Similarly, in 1945 there were 25 million dairy cows in the United States, and they produced 4,600 pounds of milk each. Today, we have just 10 million animals, but they put out an annual average of 14,000 pounds each. That can only be thought of as a boon for consumers, farmers, even cows (less competition for the most scenic grazing sites). Developments now underway could dramatically push that trend line upward again—except that environmentalists and some hidebound farmers may succeed in preventing it.

The biggest improvement on the milk horizon would come from use of bovine somatotropin (BST), a natural growth hormone that could boost milk output another 15 to 20 percent per cow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has already given the go-ahead to sales of milk from cows getting BST (it is indistinguishable from other milk) has concluded after careful study that BST is an entirely safe protein. Only some atavistic environmental groups continue to make the opposite case, and commercial approval is expected early in 1990.

But environmentalist opponents now organizing a scare and boycott campaign have allies in this case among dairy farmers, who have their own reasons for opposing BST. The dairy program is one of the most rigidly controlled of all the farm subsidies. The federal government supports milk prices at strictly controlled levels by buying up tons of surplus dairy products. If BST suddenly boosted milk output, keeping prices right where the dairy lobby has convinced Congress to set them could become very expensive—possibly a couple billion dollars a year beyond the similar figure already budgeted.

The obvious solution is to let prices fall, but dairy farmers used to their cozy cartel would consider that a calamity. Better to remain inefficient. So in this instance, bounty-inducing new technology is being resisted, on trumped-up environmental grounds, largely because the U.S. farm program makes it impossible for prices to adjust to changes in supply. Not only BST, but any other research that would increase efficiency in the ways that we have come to think of as synonymous with modem progress becomes anathema under this warped set of incentives.

What's the big loss, you say, not noticing any great milk shortage. Well, maybe none. But we don't know what benefits might accrue from cheap milk. There are always those floor coverings made from casein. And scientists think they may someday be able to extract rare medical proteins—such as the blood-clotting factor used to treat hemophilia—from milk. Progress can't be anticipated in advance, but we would definitely be foregoing something. And tactically, the timing of this case is bad. Because it is about to run up against the political might of one of the most venerable farm subsidies, biotechnology—in the BST case—is going to get a very black eye even before its potential has fully seated in the public consciousness. That could set a nasty precedent.

So we are back where we have ended up several times before in our tour of U.S. farming: concluding that without price reform—specifically, a return of market incentives—great opportunities will be lost. That, plus openness toward the new agricultural science, is essential to the future health of U.S. farming. A biotechnology cornucopia is about to open, offering riches on many fronts. Among other things, a flood of mutually beneficial innovations could heal the increasingly antagonistic relationship between farmers and environmentalists. But if that is to happen, both sides must be willing to embrace positive change. Stubborn insistence on blocking the door to progress could prevent a synthesis with truly rare potential to improve life for all Americans.

Contributing Editor Karl Zinsmeister is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and an adjunct research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is the third in a four-part series. Next: How to get out of the subsidy trap.

Advertisement