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Column: From corn belt to carbon belt
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Column: From corn belt to carbon belt

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In 2020, U.S. federal farm subsidies reached $46 billion, at least a three-fold increase in annual agricultural supports since President Donald Trump took office. This truly staggering level of taxpayer spending constituted nearly 40% of U.S. farm income, making agriculture a de facto public-private partnership. Some might call it socialism. Others might see it as a blatant attempt to buy votes in flyover country during an election year.

The fact is, the billions spent on the farm sector today are neither protecting the future of U.S. agriculture nor preserving the traditional family farm. But that investment could actually provide a social compact that might steer us away from climate catastrophe.

U.S. agriculture certainly needs help. The perpetually tempestuous farm economy suffered tremendous blows this year — from the administration’s failed trade war with China, to restaurant sectors and meat packing plants ravaged by COVID-19 shutdowns. A super windstorm called a derecho impacted up to half of the Iowa corn crop this summer. And despite all these aid programs, U.S. farm bankruptcies were up 8% from 2019.

Meanwhile, the climate is overheating with record-breaking temperatures and megadroughts and megafires scorching the American West. Our capital- and machinery-intensive system of industrial agriculture remains a key driver of this existential threat, through continual land cultivation, fertilizer use and livestock emissions.

But with some leadership and vision, the heavily subsidized farm sector could provide on-the-ground solutions to slow the impacts of climate change.

We are living in Dust Bowl-like times that require bold action. This is why the Farm Bill, which funds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $100 billion annual budgets, was formed in the first place. The nation’s most precious nonrenewable resource — topsoil — was blowing away in the 1930s. Conservation practices were introduced during that time, along with government support for farmers.

This included the Plains Shelterbelt Project, an effort to plant a 100-mile wide swath of trees from North Dakota to Texas to provide a line of defense against wind erosion and the Dust Bowl. Many of those conservation practices, sadly, have since been abandoned.

We need the equivalent of a modern-day agricultural moon shot — a plan to transition the Corn Belt to a carbon belt. Hundreds of millions of acres now planted in corn and soybeans could provide year-round ground cover with permanent plantings that can pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in deep-rooted plants in the soil.

The billions we spend on crop insurance for marginally productive acreage could be put to better use with permanent carbon sequestering plantings of grasses, trees and other native species. Cover crops can protect hundreds of millions of acres during the winter and between rotations to help build resilience in the soil and reduce the need for energy-intensive fertilizers.

Research into perennial grain crops (which don’t require annual tilling of the soil) must also be dramatically increased. Livestock raised on the land, rather than in methane-spewing factories, should receive far more support. And we could trade a majority of our surplus corn and soybeans to other countries to keep rainforests from being cleared for feed grain monocultures.

Establishing a carbon belt across the U.S. heartland is as essential as the moon landing was 60 years ago. We still have just one planet. Ensuring its long-term habitability is arguably the greatest challenge before us.

Daniel Imhoff is the author of "The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide, CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories" and "Farming with the Wild." This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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