WASHINGTON - April 10 - Each year, an average of $270 million worth of wasted fertilizer flows down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a "Dead Zone" of more than 5,000 square miles that is completely devoid of marine life. Now, a new Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of government and industry data shows that reforms of wasteful federal farm programs could lead the way to restoration of America's most valuable fishery.
In the wake of last summer's hurricanes, many wonder how much more environmental abuse the Gulf and its fishery can withstand. But EWG found that the vast majority of fertilizer pollution comes from a small area of heavily subsidized cropland along the Mississippi and its tributaries, where taxpayer-funded farm subsidies overwhelm spending on water quality and conservation by more than 500 to 1.
Shifting a modest portion of crop subsidies, particularly those that go to the largest and wealthiest growers, into programs that encourage more careful fertilizer use, wetland restoration and the streamside planting of grass and trees to absorb runoff, could reduce dead zone pollution significantly—while also boosting the bottom line for family farms.
EWG researchers culled computerized records from nine different federal and commercial databases and found that by shifting a share of farm subsidies to proven conservation programs, Congress could cut the damage and save farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Taxpayers have been subsidizing wasteful commercial agricultural practices that hurt an important source of our fish, when we could be paying family farms to help us solve the problem," said EWG President Ken Cook. "Given how badly the Gulf needs help right now, it's a common-sense solution."
Congress has historically steered billions of dollars away from programs that reward farmers for cutting pollution, erosion and fertilizer pollution and toward antiquated programs that pay farms based on past production of grains and cotton. The conservation programs turn down thousands of farmers a year due to a lack of money.
EWG analysts quantified for the first time the extent to which pollution and subsidies are inter-related. They found that:
- Farmlands in 15 percent of the Mississippi River Basin send 80 percent of the critical spring surge of fertilizer pollution into the Gulf.
- Farms in 124 counties that make up 5 percent of the Basin send 40 percent of the spring fertilizer pollution load to the Gulf.
- In those top polluting 124 counties, taxpayers spent 500 times more money on crop subsidies than on conservation programs.
- In the top fertilizer-polluting states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, 11,000 farmers were denied conservation payments in 2004 because the programs had no money.
EWG's analysis, complete with maps, lists of counties and taxpayer subsidy records, can be viewed online at http://www.ewg.org/reports/deadzone/.