Farm Subsidies Subsidize Wetlands Destruction

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Environment

Pesticides, those much maligned chemicals, can be wonderful things. Likewise for fertilizer, when it’s not being used to blow up federal buildings. They are both important tools in making the U.S. the best-fed nation in the world, and in feeding tens of millions of citizens of other nations.

But, as they say, you can have too much of a good thing. Agricultural run-off from these products are the biggest cause of waterway pollution in this country. Pesticides, which are primarily herbicides, can kill plants downstream. Fertilizer run-off makes other plants grow at extraordinary rates. Together, fertilizers and pesticides can be a one-two punch against eco-systems.

The single best example of such destruction is the nation’s largest wetlands, the Everglades. Phosphorous fertilizer run-off from sugar cane has set off a chain reaction, stimulating growth among bacteria and algae and alsofosters the growth of cattails which choke off the marshes, ruining nesting places and destroying animal food supplies. Thousands of acres have been overrun by these super cattails.

Because of such problems, pesticides and fertilizers are heavily targeted by government regulators. And it’s seems only right that the government be involved because, you see, it’s the government that’s responsible for much of the problem.

That’s the conclusion of a new study from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in Washington, D.C. The study analyzed data from six major farms states, and found that eliminating farm subsidies could reduce chemical use per acre by as much as 35%.

This is because under the federal price support program, which applies to many types of crops, the government pays the farmer a guaranteed price for his yield. If, come harvest time, the crops don’t bring in that minimum price the government pays the farmer the difference, called a deficiency payment.

Naturally, this short-circuits the market. Farmers grow extra crops not because there are waiting mouths out there but because the government is paying a bounty. Extra crops require extra pesticides and fertilizer.

But it gets worse. In order to try to limit these extra crops, the government encourages farmers — through additional payments — to keep part of their land idle. But farmers are terrific businessmen, and a heck of a lot smarter than your average bureaucrat. So the farmer goes to extraordinary lengths to get as many crops as he can out of the acreage still in use. This includes pouring on all the more fertilizer and pesticides.

U.S. consumption of plant fertilizer is now close to an all-time high, while pesticide use per acre is at its highest point ever.

Now we have too much fertilizer and pesticide in use and too much food. This surplus food practically guarantees that commodity prices will be low again next year and the cycle starts all over again. It’s so ridiculous you’d think it was directed by Kevin Costner, except that this overblown budget is on a government scale. That puts farm subsidy prices at about $10 billion per year.

Myself, I have better uses for my tax dollars than destroying precious wetlands. I also didn’t give up the benefit of phosphorous detergent just to subsidize its use by farmers, who were always the greatest source of phosphorous pollution in any cas

In the case of the Everglades, no deficiency payments are made. So the sugar lobby wants you to think it’s not costing you anything. But instead of direct payments, the government has established a quota-based tariff on sugar imports. In all, the sugar program is estimated to cost consumers $1.4 billion a year and, again, encourages excess crop growing.

But if you, me, and the alligators and egrets don’t care much for this whole business, you won’t hear the bureaucrats complaining. Indeed, this is a jobs program for them.

As study author Jonathon Tolman put it to me, "On one hand you have EPA doing everything it can to reduce pesticide use by any means possible, costing taxpayers a fortune. And on the other hand you have the USDA using taxpayer money to get more of it." It’s bizarre, which is to say business as usual for the feds.

While CEI is often at odds with environmentalists, on this they have the full backing of the Wilderness Society. "We think [the study] is indisputable," General Counsel Jim Webb told me. The nation is "investing a lot of national capital, in both dollars and critters, in keeping this subsidy going."

Any one study needs to be seen as just that — one study. But other studies support Tolman’s findings. One conducted on the North Carolina coastal plain, for example, found that elimination of farm programs would have reduced nitrogen leaching from fertilizer use by 46%. And data from the 1991 and 1992 Cropping Practices Surveys shows that corn producers who participated in the USDA feedgrain program used nitrogen, herbicides and insecticides at greater rates than those who didn’t participate.

"I’d love to eat a bureaucrat,
but I understand they give you heartburn."

There is relief from all this in the former of legislation introduced by Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer (N.J.) that would phase out most deficiency payments over the next six years (giving farmers a chance to adjust) and make other major cuts in federal farm subsidies.

Other legislation before Congress would begin removing those sweet special privileges the sugar lobby receives.

If alligators and egrets could lobby their congressmen — and why not, if dead people in Chicago can vote? They’d surely be lobbying to get rid of farm supports.