U.S. Farm Policy, Algae and Our Children
by Dr. Mark Edwards
F arm policies drive food production. Farm policies endow government-sponsored research to Land Grant Universities, extension service agents, subsidies, and food support for the hungry. The USDA manages the $20 billion farm subsidy payments, plus $6 billion in ethanol subsidies, Ironically, the same agency disperses the $112 billion in food assistance for the hungry. These subsidies do not include the $45 billion in subsidies to oil and gas companies that enable farmers to pay lower prices for fuel. Water subsidies and the power to pump water are also not included.
A farm policy that expenses so much in subsidies for industrial agricultural methods has no appetite for sponsoring R&D in new methods of food production. Government funding for natural growing methods such as abundance and algae-based foods rounds to zero. Abundance methods cultivate algae and other microcrops using no or minimum fossil resources. Even though abundance produces healthier foods, avoids fossil resource consumption, uses no poisons and regenerates ecosystems, the USDA has not invested a nickel on this alternative production system.
The same large agribusinesses that have addicted farmers to their branded synthetic chemistry drive farm policy. Wealthy farmers and agribusinesses like ADM, Monsanto and Cargill make enormous political donations to both parties in order to shape policy in commercial agriculture to benefit their interests. Consequently, over 99% of federal grants and R&D go to industrial agriculture.
Unsurprisingly, most extension agents, who are in place to help farmers and gardeners, receive training in industrial agricultural production. Less than 1% of U.S. federal funding goes to organic production, R&D and training.
India and China support natural processes R&D in food production because their leaders realize that fossil resources are finite, increasing in price, and will eventually run out. Both countries have terminated their biofuels programs with food crops for the obvious reason that food-based biofuels drive up the cost of food and the inputs to produce food. China recently put a 135% tariff on their phosphorus fertilizer to insure sufficient supplies for domestic farmers. India’s scientists have performed some excellent R&D with natural biofertilizers, especially focused on cyanobacteria that fix nitrogen and reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer.
As modern farm policies evolved from 1960 to 1990, food supply and sustainability issues were not well articulated. Consumers and political leaders preferred celebrating the Green Revolution and the cheap food it provided. Leaders and policy makers ignored critical issues with GE crops, such as the need for additional cultivation, two to three times more irrigation, triple the need for fertilizer and several times the need for agricultural chemicals.
Few people were aware of nutrition and health issues, food security, fossil resource depletion or global warming before the 1980s. The winds of political rhetoric drowned out the few voices that challenged the fossil foods path such as Prince Charles, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollan, Miguel Altieri, Alice Waters and Robert Henrikson.
Today, only one third of Americans believe the scientific consensus that human actions cause global climate change. However, neither politicians nor consumers can deny that humans have caused severe fossil resource depletion and environmental pollution with our cheap fossil food policies.
Algae foods make little sense when the cost consumers pay for industrial foods appear to be so cheap. Appearances can be deceiving. Consumers pay low prices for industrial foods due to government subsidies and anemic math.
The U.S. government lavishly subsidizes industrial farming, big agribusinesses, big oil, water management and the fossil resources on which food production depends. For example, many farmers pay less than 2% of the true cost of irrigation water — which promotes waste and pollution. Subsidies reduce the real food cost by nearly a third. These subsidies are financed with our children’s money, in government bonds held largely by Saudi Arabia and China.
American corn subsidies decimated Haitian farmers because they could not grow food successfully, as cheap U.S. food was dumped on the country as “food aid.” The U.S. corn subsidies also have displaced over 1.5 million poor Mexican farmers. Farmers were forced to leave their land because they could not compete with subsidized U.S. corn. Many of these farmers added to the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. Canada, Mexico and other countries have outstanding lawsuits against U.S. subsidies with the World Trade Organization because these subsidies substantially depress the real price of food grains.
A group of more than 400 agricultural experts, known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development concluded, through its global and regional studies, that governments and industries need to discontinue environmentally damaging farming methods. At their 2008 meeting in Johannesburg South Africa, the group recommended, “ending subsidies that encourage unsustainable practices.” Political leaders in the U.S. should listen to world opinion because U.S. subsidies amplify resource consumption and pollution. Subsidies today will destroy our ability to grow our own food in the near future.
Another third of the true food cost comes from externalities, such as resource depletion, environmental degradation and human health impacts, for which the food supply system fails to account. Environmental degradation alone creates about $45 billion a year in damage. No metrics are currently available for resource depletion. Neither farmers nor consumers pay a nickel for these costs. These hidden costs are shifted to our children.
A full lifecycle accounting would show fossil foods are substantially more expensive than freedom food production. Life cycle accounting includes the economic impact of degrading air, water and soil, destroying our fisheries, creating dead zones as well as cost to human and animal quality of life and health. The current generation benefits from over consuming natural resources. We ignore resource loss by failing to account for depletion in the price of our food. The next generation will not enjoy the same luxury.
Prince Charles in his Future of Food speech at Georgetown University pointed out the “curiously perverse” economic incentive system (subsidies) that too frequently directs food production. He addressed the true cost of food effectively:
Nobody wants food prices to go up, but if it is the case that the present low price of intensively produced food in developed countries is actually an illusion, only made possible by transferring the cost of cleaning up pollution or dealing with human health problems onto other agencies, then could correcting these anomalies result in a more beneficial arena where nobody is actually worse off in net terms? It would simply be a more honest form of accounting that may make it more desirable for producers to operate more sustainably, particularly if subsidies were redirected to benefit sustainable systems of production.
Prince Charles recommends “accounting for sustainability,” which represents the true cost of food production, financial costs and the costs to natural capital – the earth’s resources.
When our children discover industrial agriculture lacks the natural resources to produce food, they will ask the government for increased subsidies. Unfortunately, the government will be out of funds. What country would be willing to make loans that add to the immense U.S. debt? The U.S. is already a debtor nation; we just fail to act as one.
When our children discover their fields worn out, fresh water is unavailable, fuel costs are out of reach, fertilizer mines are exhausted and agricultural chemicals have ruined their waterways — will they agree that our fossil foods were cheap?
What will our children do for food?