Choosing Corn Over Conservation:

It looks like the USDA is going to allow farmers to plant crops on land that was set aside for conservation purposes.

"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. . . .

This week, Schafer issued an order allowing livestock to graze on millions of acres of recently flooded CRP land in the Midwest. The emergency action didn't satisfy the food industry. Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association, sent a letter to Schafer on Tuesday saying the emergency grazing "simply is not enough to have any beneficial impact on high food prices."

CRP lands are also the subject of a legal dispute playing out in federal court in Seattle. This week, a federal judge there sided with the National Wildlife Federation and issued a temporary restraining order against the USDA to stop an earlier initiative that allowed limited grazing and haying on CRP lands. The merits of the case will be heard next week.

Given the high price of corn and other crops, farmers are unlikely to re-enroll their lands into CRP or other conservation programs as their existing contracts expire. (Most conservation programs effectively "rent" the land for a term of years.) This is yet another negative environmental consequence of the nation's political romance with corn-based ethanol.