[Marxism] Polluting Farmers Should Pay

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 26 11:47:54 MDT 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, August 26, 2019
Polluting Farmers Should Pay
By Catherine Kling

This year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — an area where decomposing 
algae consumes all oxygen in the water — logged in at nearly 7,000 
square miles, about the size of New Jersey. Researchers in the Great 
Lakes region predict that this year’s harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie 
will be twice last year’s size, and larger than the 2014 bloom that shut 
down the drinking water supply in Toledo, Ohio. Floridians and 
Chesapeake Bay residents regularly experience the green gunk and odor 
symptomatic of algal blooms. The Environmental Protection Agency reports 
that all 50 states now experience harmful algal blooms.

These blooms contain toxins that can make us sick after swimming or 
consuming tainted fish, kill pets and livestock, and raise treatment 
costs for drinking water. Algal blooms reduce recreational enjoyment 
from boating, fishing and swimming — resulting in less tourism and lower 
property values. The economic cost associated with the single shut down 
of Toledo’s drinking water system is estimated at $65 million.

The common thread? Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, commonly called 
nutrient pollution, the bulk of which comes from agricultural fertilizer 
and manure runoff. The solution seems clear: Those who cause the 
pollution should be required to pay for the cleanup, using regulations 
to ensure that farmers reduce nutrient pollution. State governments have 
the power to make this a reality.

Ranching, growing intensively fertilized grain crops, dairy farming and 
livestock production in the United States provides abundant food for the 
world. However, this success has also produced an explosive growth in 
toxic algae and phytoplankton from fertilizer and manure runoff. While 
urban runoff, fossil fuel use, and failing sewer systems contribute to 
the problem, there is scientific consensus that agricultural generated 
nutrients are dominant in many areas.

Surprising as it may seem, the 1972 Clean Water Act — whose stated goal 
is fishable and swimmable waters for all — has always exempted most 
agricultural pollutants from regulation. This nearly 50-year-old policy 
prevents the federal government from employing a polluter pays approach 
— a method that has proved successful in tackling industrial and 
municipal sources of water pollution, including raw sewage, toxic 
chemicals and industrial byproducts. Instead, the Clean Water Act relies 
on voluntary action from farmers. In effect, farmers are requested to 
change their behavior and voluntarily raise their own cost of 
production, even when their competitors do not, to fix a water quality 
problem that often occurs far downstream.

Farmers could do more, but competitive realities limit even those 
producers with the best intentions. Reducing fertilization can help, but 
even when carefully applied, some fertilizer inevitably leaves fields 
and accumulates in waters. Costlier changes — such as planting a cover 
crop in the fall to prevent nutrient loss over the winter, restoring 
wetlands and streams, planting vegetation at the edges of streams and 
managing drainage — would help. Currently the only option is for 
taxpayers to pay them to make these changes.

Last year, taxpayers spent five billion dollars to take land out of 
production and support conservation practices. This may sound like a 
lot, but five times that was spent on industrial and municipal pollution 
control, much of it paid for by the businesses and cities that generate 
pollution. Even at current levels of taxpayer support, the state of Iowa 
reports that additional conservation practices are needed on the bulk of 
its 25 million acres to solve its contribution to the Gulf dead zone.

What’s more, the E.P.A. reports that 150,000 miles of streams and nearly 
five million acres of lakes across the country remain impaired from 
nutrients. And while most Americans drink water from publicly filtered 
sources, nearly 14 percent drink water from private wells with no 
required monitoring or treatment requirements, making them vulnerable to 
nitrate pollution. Blue baby syndrome, for example, is a rare but 
well-known problem when infants ingest nitrates. Recent studies suggest 
that nitrates in drinking water are associated with increased risks of 
colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and birth defects.

Although the federal government cannot regulate agriculture under the 
Clean Water Act, states can. They are free to impose taxes, require 
permits and regulate in any way they see fit. A few have taken action. 
Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin ban the use of manure 
fertilizer on frozen ground, a practice known to prevent runoff. More 
ambitiously, in 1995 Florida required conservation actions in the 
Everglades Agricultural Area such as storm water management, erosion 
controls and more precise fertilizer application on farms. Reductions in 
phosphorus pollution occurred promptly, and the annual average decrease 
of 50 percent has exceeded the regulation’s goals. Though the area 
covers less than 5 percent of Florida agriculture, it demonstrates the 
compatibility of regulation and a successful agricultural industry.

Regulations need not be one size fits all. States can tailor 
requirements and taxes using local conditions to be as cost-effective as 
possible. Market-based incentives can help keep costs down as can the 
redirection of existing taxpayer dollars. Regional agreements among 
states — akin to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative originated in 
2009, under which nine Northeastern states jointly administer a carbon 
market with declining allowed emissions — could assure a level playing 
field for farmers across state lines.

Differential treatment of agricultural polluters cannot continue. 
Requiring polluters to pay has been the backbone of substantial and 
persistent water quality gains in other sectors. Yes, such measures will 
raise the cost of meat, dairy and grain products, they will result in 
lost exports (though fewer than in our current trade war), and they will 
affect some farmers’ bottom lines. But without them, costs will continue 
to fall on families returning from a day at the beach with stomach 
aches, on households whose members unknowingly drink contaminated water, 
on pet owners whose animals suffer the effects of toxic water and on 
consumers who must pay for bottled drinking water.

Voluntary adoption is a flawed policy. To achieve swimmable and fishable 
water for all Americans, we must go beyond it.

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