8 December 1995

More USA farmland?

MORE than 9.3m hectares (23m acres) of US arable land withdrawn under a conservation scheme could be brought back into production.

Richard Barnes, US agriculture counsellor, told a Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group conference, supported by farmers weekly and Rhone Poulenc, that the scheme, called the conservation reservation program (CRP), ends this year and needs to be reauthorised by the US Congress.

But debate among politicians, anxious to balance the US budget, has raised questions over future funding for the scheme, which has cost about £13bn ($19.5bn).

"Without some type of follow-up programme, it is estimated that over 23m acres would come back into production. But producers have the option to modify their contracts to extend the expiry date for one year," said Mr Barnes.

Between 1986 and 1993 about 14.8m hectares (36.5m acres) of land was enrolled into the scheme through contracts offering rental payments to more than 375,000 landowners. The aim was to remove environmentally sensitive and erosion-prone land from production. Reducing surplus commodities was a secondary goal.

Economists suggest the scheme may have saved taxpayers about £1.3bn ($2bn) a year by offsetting farm subsidies.

Republican politicians are concerned that the cost of the conservation programme outweighs any environmental benefit. But the Clinton administration wants to reauthorise the CRP with additional enrolments through to the year 2000. &#42