Part I: Subsidies and alternatives

Part II: The Conservation Reserve

Part III: Explorations in Europe


A search for Green Agriculture

In the final pages of my book on genetically engineered crops, I wrote this:

"If farmers are required to limit their plantings of Bt corn or cotton for the good of the ecosystem, why not go further? Why not compel (or induce through cash incentives) farmers to do other things that would produce substantial environmental benefits, such as allow some of their land to revert to grasslands and woods? ...... If genetic engineering is fascinating, or even ominous, then plowing, sowing, reaping, or breeding cannot be mundane."

Those sentences were born of frustration with debates over the environmental risks of genetically engineered crops. To me, those arguments seemed disconnected from agricultural reality. People were spending lots of time and energy analyzing subtle environmental consequences of planting genetically engineered soybeans or corn, compared to conventional soybeans or corn. Yet few seemed interested in the enormous environmental consequences of a much more fundamental choice - whether to plant soybeans and corn at all. Landscapes covered with such crops, and that includes 150 million acres of the United States, are essentially ecological sacrifice zones.

In fact, there seemed to be a curious lack of interest, among environmentalists, in most of the decisions that farmers make: Whether they plow land or not; how much land they keep in pasture or grassland; how much fertilizer they use. Yet those decisions make a huge difference  (Here's a study that measures the effects of alternative farming practices on nearby streams.). Farmland is the environment. It is - or was, within recent memory - the primary area of wildlife habitat. Consider this: crops and cattle grazing areas cover more than half of land area of the United States, outside of Alaska.

But can the public have any influence on farmers' decisions? And is it possible for farming to coexist with nature? What kind of nature? I took a run at these question in 2002 with an article in New Scientist about various innovative schemes aimed at promoting wildlife habitats within farming landscapes. But then I dropped the topic again.

I came back to it this year, thanks to the generosity of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The kind folks there gave me a journalist fellowship, and I used the time to look more closely at some initiatives in the United States and Europe aimed at promoting greener agriculture. I produced a series of reports for NPR's newsmagazines and The World. You can find them here , here, here, and here. But radio has its limitations, and this website will attempt to overcome a few of them. Here, I'll provide more detail about what I learned and provide links to some of the most useful documents and sites that I found along the way. You'll also get to see some pictures!

Part I: Subsidies and Alternatives. As it happens, farming in the United States, and even more so in Europe, is actually a kind of private/public partnership. Many farmers depend in part on public subsidies. So shouldn't that taxpayer money pay for things that benefit the public? I take a look at one halting and imperfect move in that direction - the USDA's new Conservation Security Program.

Part II: The Conservation Reserve. Did you know that American taxpayers pay to take 34 million acres of cropland out of production each year? That's an area bigger than the state of New York. Or England. It's supposed to help protect streams and create habitat for wildlife, and in many places it does.

Part III: Explorations in Europe. The European Union has made environmental priorities the centerpiece of its new, improved farm policy. On paper, the policy looks very impressive. Up close, in farming areas, things get a little confusing. But it's certainly an interesting experiment.