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Letter -- We have a chance after hurricanes to reshape agriculture

By Mark Muller

As we recover from the tragedy of Katrina, we have an opportunity to rebuild and rethink how to strengthen agriculture, regional economies and the transportation and production infrastructure. Below are 10 areas of vulnerability exposed by Katrina that need sensible policies and national leadership:

1. Energy. Almost every aspect of agricultural production now relies on fossil fuel inputs -- diesel for the tractor, petrochemicals in pesticides and herbicides, or natural gas in fertilizer. Sixty years ago, farmers were largely independent from big oil. Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are part of the solution, as is wind energy, biomass for heat and power, and manure digestion.

2. Fertilizers. As nitrogen prices follow natural gas prices, manure and legumes have become more attractive options for getting nitrogen into soil. We can go even further into reducing farmers' dependence on commercial fertilizer by developing less nitrogen-dependent crops, more sophisticated cropping rotations, and cover crops.

3. Transportation. Because federal policies have severely reduced Midwest grain storage capacity, farmers are excessively dependent on high-functioning transportation networks. Any kink in the system can sharply reduce grain prices. Lengthening Mississippi River locks does not solve this issue. It is the policy equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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4. Domestic markets. Large government expenditures are dedicated to maximizing corn and soybean production, upgrading transportation networks to international ports, prying open foreign markets -- and then providing federal support for farmers because these markets do not provide an adequate return. We've effectively ignored promising domestic markets.

5. Markets for crops less dependent on inputs. Current corn production methods work great when natural gas is cheap and the demand for international feed is high. Katrina demonstrates why putting all of our eggs into this basket is not sound policy: We can sharply reduce input costs by developing opportunities in grass-fed livestock, longer crop rotations and other diversification techniques.

6. Biofuels, bioplastics and other material production from crops. Significant advances in cellulosic ethanol technology -- using common plant material like stalks and stems to produce fuel rather than grain starches or sugars -- have made a future where fuel is derived from Midwest prairie grass a real possibility.

7. CAFO regulation. There is no quicker way to turn the public against agriculture than to convert rivers into flowing manure discharges. Parts of North Carolina are still trying to recover from the lagoon failures after Hurricane Hugo. We have yet to learn how badly the Gulf Coast has been harmed from damaged poultry confinement operations.

8. On-farm water storage. One of the best protections against flooding is to slow down the flow of water and let it percolate into the soil. Instead of pushing water off of farm fields, farmers can allow fields to flood, thereby reducing impacts on downstream communities. Many farmers are willing to do this, but they need compensation for this type of flood protection.

9. Valuing the commons. We all benefit from a healthy, functioning Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, yet our penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to Gulf shore development jeopardizes resources. Saving the vanishing wetlands of coastal Louisiana would provide benefits to us all.

10. Climate change. The U.S. needs to provide leadership on climate change, while also prepare for future major weather disturbances so U.S. citizens--and the economy--aren't so vulnerable.

-- Mark Muller is the director of the Environment and Agriculture Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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