Apr. 12, 2006 – Every summer, a huge swell of algae spreads through the Gulf of Mexico and then dies, smothering aquatic life in its wake. Scientists have documented this expanding "dead zone" since the early 1970s, finding that in recent years it has grown to an average of 14,000 square miles of ocean.
Though the federal government has implemented voluntary programs over the last decade to reduce the pollution that feeds the Gulf dead zone, a study released yesterday by an environmental research group found that taxpayers are inadvertently footing the bill for the fertilizers thought to be the largest contributor to the Gulfâ€™s annual ecological blackout.
The dead zone in the Gulf, like other dead zones throughout the world, is caused by lack of oxygen in the water, a condition known as "hypoxia." Studies have blamed increasing amounts of nitrogen-laden fertilizer dumped into the Gulf by the Mississippi and AtchafalayaRivers for the expansion of the hypoxic zone. The nitrogen spurs the growth of marine algae, which then die and feed bacteria that in turn consume nearly all the oxygen in the area.
A February 2002 study on the Gulf Coast hypoxia published in the journal Bioscience reports that 74 percent of the nitrogen flushed into the Gulf comes from agricultural fertilizers, mostly originating in the northern portion of the Midwest. Municipal waste systems and other human and animal waste sources in the Mississippi River Basin contribute the rest of the nitrogen.
In a study released yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 80 percent of the Gulfâ€™s nitrate fertilizer pollution flows from farms in just 15 percent of Mississippi River Basin counties â€“ 123 counties in total â€“ and that those counties are mostly concentrated in the upper Midwest.
[15% of the Mississippi River Basin that accounts for 80% of fertilizer
pollution. Source: Environmental Working Group]
After using data from the US Geological Survey to trace the pathway of agricultural pollution, the EWG compared the results with farm-subsidy data and found that the counties contributing the highest amounts of pollution were also the ones receiving the most tax-payer-funded subsidies for farming.
According to the group, from 1995 to 2002, nearly half of farm subsidies in the Mississippi River Basin â€“ or $28 billion â€“ went to farms in the most polluting counties.
EWG also found that from 1990 to 2002 the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used in the Basin increased by 2 billion pounds. The study showed that during the spring, about 7.8 million pounds of that fertilizer is washed into waters feeding the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
While the patterns of water pollution correlated with the distribution of farm subsidies, the researchers also reported that the 15 percent of counties responsible for most of the pollution were also receiving relatively few dollars for conservation programs.
According to the EWG analysis, for every tax dollar spent on conservation programs for farmers in the most heavily polluting counties, the government spends $500 on farm subsidies.
"This convergence suggests that a simple, common-sense reform of the way we spend tax dollars to support targeted application of improved farming practices," wrote the reportâ€™s authors, "will produce significant and cost-effective long-term gains in water quality and help restore the Gulf."
The group recommended that federal money be shifted from subsidies enjoyed by large farms â€“ which scoop up the overwhelming portion of government subsidies â€“ and into programs that enlist farmers in more conservative fertilizer use, restoring wetlands and planting grass and trees near streams to absorb runoff.
"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 in a press statement accompanying the report.
US farm subsidies have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, especially in the international arena. Critics see them as an unfair edge provided to large American agribusinesses, giving them a competitive advantage over smaller farms and stability in so-called "free-trade" arrangements.
Though subsidies in some cases help stabilize declining farms, the payments often line the pockets of already-profitable enterprises. Fair-trade advocates have pointed out that subsidies encourage the overproduction of crops and depress prices, which keeps food cheap but undercuts smaller, less-privileged farmers.