LOGAN -- Subsidizing farmers whose crops failed and encouraging the growth of corn for use as a domestic biofuel probably seemed like great ideas at the time.
But the federal government needs to take another look at how farm policy is encouraging nonsustainable agricultural practices that harm the environment, overuse energy and hurt the profitability of small, family farms using more sustainable practices.
That's the belief of Douglas Jackson-Smith, a Utah State University professor who co-wrote a Science magazine article on the topic.
"Sustainability is more than sustaining food production," Jackson-Smith said. "We should be able to contribute to the well-being of farmers and the things society cares about beyond just food, including environmental quality."
Traditional farming states in the Midwest benefit most from the Farm Bill and agricultural subsidy programs, Jackson-Smith said.
Jackson-Smith said many Utah farms already plant and rotate crops and raise livestock, among other agriculturally sustainable practices.
"Utah doesn't benefit much from the farm programs," he said. "We don't tend to produce many of the commodities around which the subsidies are arranged. Our farmers receive far less benefit from Farm Bill programs and less competitive advantage."
Jackson-Smith and a team of 14 other professors studied the effects of nonsustainable agricultural practices, along with possible alternatives that would be less taxing to soil and air quality. The scientists and scholars offered their results in a National Academy of Science report.
But NAS reports are solely science-based and do not allow for opinion or recommendation. So the 15 study contributors selected agricultural sociologist Jackson-Smith and co-author John Reganold, of Washington State University's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, to write the Science article published Thursday.
Jackson-Smith said America's agricultural practices that are having a negative effect include:
* The overdependence on fertilizer and nonorganic additives, many of which are made of petroleum products, Jackson-Smith said. When petroleum prices soar, so do agricultural costs and food prices paid by consumers.
* The government-subsidized overgrowth of heavy-feeding crops such as corn, which requires lots of fertilizer and leaves soil depleted.
* Government payments to farmers whose crops fail. Jackson-Smith said subsidies remove the economic penalty for choosing unwise planting locations and inappropriate crops.
* Overtilling of soil, which has caused erosion and has sent once-rich soil and harmful soil additives into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone where marine life does not survive.
Jackson-Smith and his colleagues would like to see policy reformed in ways that would create incentives to reward sustainable agricultural practices.
"It is possible to keep productivity high, but also reach goals of environmental and social well-being," he said. "Those were not goals around which our nation's farm policy was originally designed."
Promising agricultural practices include:
* Decreasing pesticides and protecting plants from predators by using beneficial insects.
* Increasing crop rotation to ease infestations of harmful insects that target specific crops and to allow depleted soil to recover.
* Companion planting of crops that help each other thrive.
* The rural family farm practice of raising crops and livestock. Animal waste is a good source of fertilizer, Jackson-Smith said, and grain and hay crops are a good source of animal feed. Farms that are self-reliant save money, cut the energy needs for trucking in feed or fertilizer and save truck exhaust emissions unnecessarily added to our air, he said.
"Political scientists marvel at how much influence the farming states have over politics and agricultural policy," he said. "For such a very small percentage of the population, they have tremendous power."
Jackson-Smith believes that increasing consumer interest in the environment and in sustainable farming practices may spark change.
"Growing budget concerns and growing awareness of the undesirable effects to the environment are going to provide, potentially, an opportunity to rethinking what we are trying to get out of our federal investment in agriculture."