Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ducks and Sara Lee

The headline should maybe be "ducks vs. sara lee" or "water quality vs. sara lee". One could also substitute any major food producer, i.e. General Mills, Cargill, etc. into the role of Sara Lee. Right now in the halls of congress, the farm bill is being debated. The farm bill is the single most important piece of legislation that congress works on. It literally affects the lives of every American and a great deal of the other inhabitants of this world. From food stamps, conservation programs, price supports/subsidies to school lunch programs, they're all included in the farm bill. As you can image, with all of these interests, this is a very complex piece of legislation.

One of the single most successful conservation programs in the history of this country has been the conservation reserve program. It has saved millions of acres of topsoil from erosion, improved water quality, reduced pesticide and nutrient run-off, and created a mecca for wildlife. Much of the CRP land is situated in the upper great plains or the prairie pothole region. CRP pays farmers to idle their land that is highly erodable. Preference is given to land that is on steep slopes and near water. While there is certainly room for improvement, it's been a good system.

Not everyone would agree with that last statement. Some folks don't think government should be paying people NOT to do something. A large number of corporations (see the list above) don't like it because if inflates the price of grains which then cuts into their profit margin; something stockholders don't seem to like very much. This is particularly true these days as grain prices are at near all-time highs. As more and more corn has been syphoned off for ethanol production, corn prices have increased dramatically. Drought and higher energy costs have also lead to higher prices. Higher prices for grain mean we pay more for meat (it costs more to feed cows grain). I won't even get into a discussion that cows weren't meant to be eating grain ........ at least for now.

So, what does all of this have to do with ducks? Or water quality? Well, some pretty educated folks are mapping out the minimal losses of grasslands as more and more farmers opt out of the CRP program. The results are shocking and if you're a duck, downright scary. The red areas of the map show the greatest loss of CRP-based habitat. They just happen to be in the area that hosts some of the highest nesting densities of waterfowl on the continent.

As the farm bill gets debated it's important to ask what do we value? Is it a cheap pack of ball park franks? A Sara Lee cake for $2.50? Farmers getting a fair price for their crop? Corporations like Cargill making higher profits? A pair of pintails sitting on a pothole in North Dakota? A vibrant, living Gulf of Mexico?

Lot's to think about.


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