The View from the Buckle of the Corn Belt

[imgbelt img=IMG_3658+1600E+comp_1_belt.jpg]Under the “Big Sky” of Western Illinois lies the splendor of an abused land, straining to produce one more bushel based on short-term efficiency and long-term loss.


program to provide “technical and financial assistance for interested farmers and ranchers to help improve the health of bees, which play an important role in crop production.”

Why is the program needed? Bee populations have crashed because of insecticides and farmers who destroyed pasture and woodland bee habitats to create those broad fields that are part of the landscape. Roadside flowers are a rarity in neatly manicured farm country. State roadside wildflower plantings are mowed down. Without their habitat, the bees (and butterflies) die off. Farmers have starved their friends, the pollinators.

The dark comedy of the climate-change/global-warming debate adds another dimension to the ironies of agribusiness and environmental decline. Research as early as 1829 noted the possibility of greenhouse gases, and by about 1859 scientists recognized the likelihood that too much carbon dioxide would warm the earth’s climate. Yet, fossil-fuel-based agribusiness practices wreak havoc on the climate.

report, the agriculture industry is a disproportionate producer of greenhouse gases compared with its value-added economic output, based on soil and manure management, fermentation processes, and other factors. Minimal benefits come from “sinking” carbon into soil. Substantial carbon benefits do come from forestry practices, which are rare around here because trees are an enemy.

So why does agribusiness around here cut down trees that could help counter global warming while simultaneously protecting water and soil? Why does it insist on fossil fuel inputs? Why does it fight clean water and air regulations? What happened to the people we trust not only to grow our food but to steward the land for future generations?

The short-run economics of agribusiness work against long-run conservation on and off the farm. Individual farmers feel compelled to maximize profitability. Most agribusiness farmers hold an extremely narrow view of land stewardship because of the pressure-packed immediacy of markets.

In ironic counterpoint, the federal government—which is responsible for our commonwealth of natural resources—has reduced conservation technical assistance, relies more on incentives for “interested” farmers, and ties conservation practices to crop insurance premiums. The 2014 Farm Bill version of working lands conservation is not about putting soil, water, and the climate first. It is a method of securing short-run profitability for agribusiness first and putting conservation second.