[Marxism] Polluting Farmers Should Pay
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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