The Frontal Cortex

Agricultural subsidies are bad policy on so many different levels. They artificially lower food prices, thus making it harder for farmers from developing nations to compete. (Cutting subsidies would do a tremendous amount of good for the third world.) They encourage the growth of monoculture farming, in which vast tracts of land are devoted to a single, genetically modified crop. (70 percent of subsidies go to just four different crops: corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. And the vast majority of subsidies go to large corporations, not family farmers.) They help make us fatter, since all that excess corn leads to a glut of high-fructose corn syrup. (Read this to find out more.)

In yesterday’s New York Times, Dan Barber, the chef behind Blue Hill at Stone Barns, argued that ag subsidies are also destroying the taste of our food:

Bad decisions about agriculture have defined government policy for the last century; 70 percent of our nation’s farms have been lost to bankruptcy or consolidation, creating an agricultural economy that looks more Wall Street than Main Street.

Now, after the uprooting of a thousand years of agrarian wisdom, we chefs have discovered something really terrible — no, not that the agricultural system we help support hurts farmers and devastates farming communities, or that it harms the environment and our health. What we’ve discovered is that the food it produces just doesn’t taste very good.

Barber’s suggestions for the new Agricultural Bill, apart from making gastronomical sense, are also excellent ecological policy. We should be encouraging crop diversity, not preventing it:

We could start by rewarding diversity over yield, basing subsidy payments not on how many acres of corn a farmer grows but on the number of varieties of crops he plants. We could also link payments to, say, the efficiency of nitrogen fixation (crop rotation helps the soil retain nitrogen, so farmers don’t need to add it with chemicals) or equate them with how much a farm helps soil and water conservation. In effect, tie payments to plant health.

This doesn’t mean the government needs to tell the farmer what to grow. Instead, show the farmer that there’s more money to be made in a rich, diverse ecology and the planting strategy will change. Change the planting strategy, and whether it’s grains or greens, the quality of what’s harvested vastly improves.