(Posted by Tommy Landers.)
While there are some bad actor farmers out there, many farmers raise our food in ways that protect local and regional water quality. Indeed, farming as an industry is not inherently polluting. A variety of sustainable farming methods exist that have minimal impact on waterways.
And yet, agriculture as a whole continues to be a major polluter of the Chesapeake Bay and waters throughout the country. The problem lies less in the average farmer and more in corporate agribusiness interests. Whether it be corporations like Perdue, Tyson, or Cargill, or industry groups like Delmarva Poultry Industry or the Farm Bureau, these players have successfully maintained a status quo for their industry that keeps the big guys happy, the little guys struggling, and beautiful waterways like the Chesapeake Bay seriously polluted.
No wonder, when the Perdues of the world take absolutely no legal responsibility for the football stadiums’ worth of manure created by their animals. Chicken processing companies like Perdue hire ostensibly independent contract growers to raise their birds. When the animals are ready for the slaughterhouse, however, the companies take the chickens and leave the growers with all the poop. In the end, farmers and taxpayers have to pay to deal with what should be the processors’ problem.
No other industry is so successful at avoiding responsibility for its pollution. What if, when you bought a car, you had to sign a contract saying you were the legal owner of the car’s tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants?
Corporate agribusinesses’ skill at externalizing pollution is matched only by their ability to weaken laws written to clean up that pollution. In fact, through their political involvement, agribusiness interests are among the biggest roadblocks to cleaner water for the American people.
Big agribusiness corporations have invested millions of dollars to defend agricultural practices that pollute America’s rivers, lakes and ocean waters and to defeat common-sense measures to clean up our waterways. Over the past decade, the top ten agribusiness interests spent $35 million to influence congressional elections. From 2005 to 2010, the ten leading agribusiness interests spent $127 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, fielding 159 lobbyists in 2010 – one lobbyist for every four members of the House and the Senate. Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau led the pack, fielding 80 lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in 2010.
Those investments have paid off, at the expense of clean water and our public health. Here are some of the results:
- According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pollution from agriculture contributes to poor water quality in more than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams in the United States, along with 2,500 square miles of lakes and 2,900 square miles of estuaries. These waters are so polluted that they are unsafe for fishing, swimming, or the maintenance of healthy populations of wildlife.
- The number of documented areas of low dissolved oxygen off America’s coasts – often called “dead zones” – has increased from 12 in 1960 to 300 today. This includes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which covered a record area of roughly 8,000 square miles in 2008. The increase in coastal dead zones has coincided with the expansion of industrial agribusiness in the United States.
- Rapid changes in America’s agricultural system over the past few decades – driven by the nation’s largest agribusiness corporations – have exacerbated the impact of agribusiness to our waterways. Among these changes are the shift toward fewer, larger animal farms with more intense environmental impacts and the planting of massive acreage of chemical-intensive corn in America’s heartland.
There are countless examples of specific bills or government actions that the corporate farm lobby has opposed. Right now the American Farm Bureau Federation is suing the EPA over their new Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. That plan should be our best opportunity in a generation to clean up the Bay, as long as the Farm Bureau and others don’t put a wrench in the works. The Farm Bureau also supports a current bill in Congress that would rid the EPA of their ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and they want to strip EPA of any funding to help restore Clean Water Act protections to critical waterways that recently lost those protections.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilzack recently said that “probably 90 percent of America’s farmers are just barely making it.” I can only wonder how much better off our farmers would be if the Farm Bureau—the self-acclaimed “voice of agriculture”—spent more time and money helping out those farmers and less on things like lobbying to kill environmental legislation. Or if Perdue, Tyson, and the other processors took responsibility for animal waste instead of hoisting it all on the backs of their growers.
In the face of the powerful corporate agribusiness lobby, our leaders should stand up for America’s hard-working farmers and for clean water and public health. We won’t start fixing all that’s wrong with America’s food system until they do.
(Check out Environment Maryland’s recent report: Growing Influence: The Political Power of Agribusiness and the Fouling of America’s Waterways, February 2011.)