Here in the U.S., our grocery bills are rising faster than they have since Gerald Ford bumbled about the Oval Office. Across the globe, the recent surge in crop prices is putting sufficient food out of reach of millions of people.

The dismal human dimension of the food crisis has been amply (if sporadically) covered by the media. But its budding ecological component has gotten short shrift.

The price surge has inspired a virtual tsunami of agrichemicals to be spilled onto farmland globally, not least the U.S. heartland, as farmers scramble to take advantage of high prices by boosting yields. It’s also pushing farmers to plow into marginal, environmentally sensitive land to expand plantings.

For me, the obvious answer is to move away from highly concentrated, input-heavy industrial agriculture and rebuild local and regional food production globally.Oh yeah, and stop using government policy to ensure that huge amounts of corn be turned into car fuel.

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But I’m not a senator from an ag-heavy state. Responding to crop damage from floods in Iowa, Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa) recently floated the following idea, The New York Times reports:

Senator Charles Grassley, … one of Capitol Hill’s main voices on farm policy, on Friday urged the Agriculture Department to release tens of thousands of farmers from contracts under which they had promised to set aside huge tracts as natural habitat.

Now, the Times is being a bit gentle here with the bit about “natural habitat.” What Grassley is proposing here is gutting the Conservation Reserve Program, probably the USDA’s most effective conservation effort. The CRP pays farmers to take ecologically fragile land out of production — an act which benefits society but would otherwise not benefit farm owners, since idle land brings in no money. The program does much more than protect habitat. Here’s how the USDA itself describes it:

The Conservation Reserve Program reduces soil erosion, protects the Nation’s ability to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland resources. It encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers.

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In that context, Grassley’s plea is particularly grotesque. Skulking around Iowa’s flood regions in search of photo ops, Grassley fretted about the gravity of his proposal. “This is an extraordinary request,” he told The Times. “I would not make it if the situation in the Midwest were not so dire.”

Of course, as an excellent recent article by Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post shows, Grassley’s proposal amounts to a dubious cure for Iowa’s troubles. University of Northern Iowa ecologist Kamyar Enshayan explains to Achenbach how heavy rains turned into floods:

[Enshayan] points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed. “We’ve done numerous things to the landscape that took away these water-absorbing functions,” he said. “Agriculture must respect the limits of nature.”

Thus if you thought the floods of 2008 were bad, imagine how awful they would have been if land idled under the CRP had been plowed. Yet rather than reject Grassley’s reckless proposal, the USDA is taking it quite seriously, The Times reports:

An Agriculture Department spokesman said Friday that the Grassley proposal would be considered. This week, the agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, said his department would consider “everything possible” to aid farmers.

While Grassley eyes sensitive land and dreams of seeing it go under the plow, he “rejects” any suggestion that the government’s ethanol mandate be cut this year.

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