NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Government Subsidies Play a Role in Agricultural Pollution

February 13, 2002

Huge government subsidies encourage large-scale farmers to cultivate their lands to the hilt. That has meant more intense applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and less land devoted to trees, wetlands and other conservation buffers that would help control run-offs of chemicals.

The result is that cities and towns downstream must devote greater resources to purifying their water before it can be drunk. It also is contributing to the creation of dead zones in the oceans sometimes thousands of miles from shore.

The situation is particularly acute in Iowa -- whose farmers get more federal subsidies than farmers in any other state.

  • Iowa farmers have collected $6.75 billion in subsidies over the past five years.
  • In a state with no national parks or forests -- which help keep the land in its natural state -- the countryside has been awash in fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and animal wastes.
  • As a result, there have been 152 fish kills in Iowa over the past six years -- leaving 5.7 million fish floating dead in rivers and lakes -- and temporarily closing half the state's lake beaches last year.
  • Water officials in Des Moines report that due to the agricultural run-offs, water quality in December was the worst they had ever seen in winter -- and they are expecting the worst spring on record.

The relationship between federal subsidies and water problems begin with farm payments that encourage big farms to grow bigger -- driving out small farmers who tend to be better conservationists. The big farmers then plant for subsidies -- rather than for the market.

Source: Elizabeth Becker, "Big Farms Making a Mess of U.S. Waters, Cities Say," New York Times, February 10, 2002.


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