Under pressure from farmers, livestock producers and soaring food prices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing a proposal that could lead to the plowing of millions of acres of land that had been set aside for conservation.
At issue is the Conservation Reserve Program, under which the government has paid farmers to stop growing row crops, such as corn and soybeans, on 34 million acres across the country. Designed in the mid-1980s to hold down production and bolster commodity prices, the $1.8 billion-a-year program has turned into a major boon for conservation, with much of the acreage planted with perennial grasses or trees, or restored to wetlands.
However, the ethanol boom, widespread flooding and high prices for feed crops have changed the equation. Livestock producers have been howling about the high price of animal feed. Pork producers say they are losing $30 a pig.
"We need more corn. That's all there is to it," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, one of many agricultural trade groups pressuring Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to change the rules of the conservation program to release land into production.
Industry observers expect Schafer to announce his decision imminently.
Whatever he decides is certain to be controversial. Environmentalists are decrying the idea of renewing farming on the land, saying that the program represents a huge taxpayer investment in conservation and that expanded cultivation might exacerbate future flooding.
Environmentalists argue that the short-term gains from additional row crops would be outweighed by long-term environmental damage.
"The reason it's in the Conservation Reserve Program, it's environmentally fragile, it's highly erodible land, and we've invested a hell of a lot of money in getting cover on this land and putting it to bed, basically," said Ralph Heimlich, an environmental consultant to the Environmental Defense Fund.