To Receive Subsidies, Largest Farms Should Accept Greater Environmental Responsibilities: New Stewardship, Disclosure Conditions Would Reduce Water Pollution Cost to Public

June 2012

(Washington, DC) — A report issued today by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) re commends that large-scale commodity crop operations that opt to receive any form of federal farm subsidy, including subsidized crop insurance, be assigned responsibility for:

  • Putting in place measures to reduce water pollution from fertilizer runoff; and
  • Disclosing information to the public about the quantity, type, and timing of fertilizers they apply.

Nutrient-fouled waterways are a byproduct of the production of commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. Many farming operations already implement stewardship measures, but nutrient pollution in particular remains a significant national problem. Excess nutrients from fertilizers that are not taken up by crops can wash off of fields and contribute to wide-ranging, costly downstream harms: from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, to polluted rivers, lakes, and streams, to contaminated drinking water.

Environmental laws provide little protection, as agriculture is routinely exempted. As a result, the costs associated with these environmental impacts are borne by the public, including even the commercial and recreational users of downstream waters.

According to report co-author Linda K. Breggin, “it is common sense to ask recipients of federal dollars to undertake basic measures that will forward other public policy objectives such as clean water—the successful conservation compliance requirements for soil erosion under the Farm Bill already provide a model and track record for such an approach.”

ELI’s recommendations focus on large-scale commodity crop operations, those commodity farms that gross $500,000 or more in annual sales. Data generated by ELI for the report using data publicly available from USDA shows that in 2009 almost 60% of all farm sales of corn, soybeans, and wheat were attributable to large-scale commodity farms. Taxpayers support these large-scale operations through myriad subsidy programs. Large-scale farms (of all types) represent only 6% of U.S. farms but received more than half of all 2009 government commodity crop payments. And, in 2009, well over 90 percent of large-scale commodity crop operations received federal subsidy dollars, as compared to only 37 percent of all farms.

ELI’s approach would not require additional subsidy dollars. It would complement—not replace or reduce funding for—current conservation subsidy programs. Although applicable only to the largest farms, exceptions would be provided in cases where adopting stewardship measures would cause financial hardship.

Report co-author Bruce Myers, states “we can speed up our progress in the fight against nutrient pollution, by developing a streamlined process for basic stewardship and disclosure measures that could be readily built into existing programs.” For example, one approach highlighted by the report would simply require large-scale commodity crop operators to certify annually that they have adopted basic stewardship measures appropriate to local circumstances.

For questions and a list of organizations that have agreed to comment on the report, Subsidies with Responsibilities: Placing Stewardship and Disclosure Conditions on Government Payments to Large-Scale Commodity Crop Operations, please contact Ms. Breggin (202-558-3102) or Mr. Myers (202-939-3809).

R&P Programs and Projects