Uh oh. The New York Times reports that “thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government’s biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate.”

Rather then let the ground lie fallow, they’re planting it with corn, soy, and wheat — the price of each of which stands near or above all-time highs.

“Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined,” The Times reports. And there’s serious pressure to bring more out:

But a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol, and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation.

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That’s not good. The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the government’s most effective ag programs. It encourages farmers to ease up planting crops on marginal, highly erodible farmland, much of it along waterways. Here’s how NRDC 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.

Blanketing the CRP’s 35 million acres — 8 percent of U.S. farmland — with industrial-style grain and soy fields won’t likely do much to lower food prices. Again, it’s marginal land, not likely to produce particularly high yields — although farmers will surely try to maximize yields by lashing their lands with chemicals.

People genuinely interested in easing the food crunch that’s now riddling the world’s poor would more profitably target the government’s biofuel program. In 2003 — when the current ethanol boom was just a gleam in Archer Daniels Midland’s eye — ethanol makers used 900 million bushels of corn. In 2007, they used 2.1 billion bushels — and they’ll use much more this year.

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That massive diversion of grain into our gas tanks, more than anything else, has pushed up commodity prices, and not just of corn. As soy and even wheat farmers switched to corn in 2007 to take advantage of higher corn prices, the prices of those commodities jumped, too. (A brutal drought in Australia, which caused a paltry wheat harvest there, also contributed to the wheat shortage).

The answer is not to trash the CRP. The answer is to trash the ethanol program and then to rebuild national and global grain reserves.

The CRP is starting to play the same role in food debates that the Alaska Wildlife Nature Reserve plays in energy debates: a distraction. Sucking the oil out of ANWR wouldn’t do anything to solve the energy crunch, but it would do irreparable ecological damage. And plowing up the CRP land won’t ease the food crunch significantly, but it will degrade millions of acres of vulnerable land, and eliminate habitat for wildlife.

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