The legislators of corn

Michael Pollan is optimistic that the time has come to remake the farm bill. Has he been to South Dakota lately?

Published April 24, 2007 12:17AM (EDT)

Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine piece on the farm bill is being linked to hither and yon all across the Web, and rightly so: It is a pithy and cogent look at a critically important piece of legislation. It is also, unexpectedly, optimistic. Pollan believes that the time might finally have come when the contents of the farm bill won't be determined solely by "a handful of farm-state legislators" cutting deals with each other behind closed doors.

That's because, he says:

The public-health community has come to recognize it can't hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can't be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices.

Let's hope Pollan's right, because while the rest of the political world may finally be focusing on the farm bill, for the farm-state legislators who have hitherto been calling the shots, absolutely nothing has changed.

Case in point: On Thursday, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. reported that South Dakota Sen. John Thune introduced legislation to continue the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol that has played a crucial role in boosting the corn-based ethanol biofuel gold rush. The current tariff doesn't expire until the end of 2008, but Thune's bill would keep it going for another two years after that.

"Ethanol is being produced domestically at record levels, but this American industry is still in its infancy and needs to be protected from heavily subsidized foreign competition while it continues to grow and establish a foothold," said Thune.

Whoa! Doesn't he have that backward? Isn't it the rest of the world that needs to be protected from heavily subsidized American corn production? With the biggest corn crop in 50 years currently being planted, and some 100 ethanol plants pumping out 4.8 billion gallons of the biofuel (as of August 2006) you might think that the time had come to let free markets do their work, and channel government subsidies elsewhere.

Of course, Thune is just representing the interests of the constituency that elected him, and maybe we shouldn't fault a politician in a democracy for doing so. But the obdurateness with which he is pushing ahead with the proposed extension of the ethanol tariff is just one small sign of the hurdles that non-farm state legislators will have to jump over if they want to remake the infinitely more complex farm bill into a piece of legislation that makes sense for everyone.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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