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In the Bay, It’s Millions for Subsidies, Pennies for Conservation

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Everyone agrees: Chesapeake Bay is heavily polluted. Thirty years of promises, compromises, plans, schemes and a whole lot of taxpayer dollars have done little to clean up one of America's most storied watersheds. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and waste from urban sprawl is one factor. But the biggest threat to water quality in the Chesapeake is pollution from agriculture.

Run-off from manure piled up by the region's poultry and livestock producers and from corn and soybean fields slathered in chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides continually fouls the bay's waters. Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally stepped up efforts to cap the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus each state can allow to be dumped into the bay, and now agribusiness is in an uproar over what it calls federal overreach.

When you contemplate Big Ag's posture toward government involvement in the bay, it’s instructive to pause for a moment to examine how federal dollars earmarked for agriculture are spent. This map of counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed reveals just how much of the federal money paid out by the Department of Agriculture goes to encourage the production of commodity crops like corn and soybeans. These subsidies eliminate financial risks for farmers who grow feed for the poultry and livestock producers and encourage them to grow as much fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive crops as possible.

By comparison, the amount of money USDA invests in conservation programs in the watershed -- voluntary programs that pay farmers to engage in environmentally protective practices like planting buffers between crop fields and stream banks-- is trivial.

 

 

"It’s ironic that Chesapeake Bay agribusinesses complain about federal government involvement yet are happy to use taxpayer dollars to remove any risk in growing cheap animal feed that contributes to the Bay’s sad state," said EWG Senior Scientist Rebecca Sutton, PhD.

Some of the more egregious examples of farm subsidies -- commodity crop payments, disaster aid and subsidized crop insurance -- grossly outweighing conservation investments occur in the following counties:

Jefferson County, W. Va. receives $41 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

Isle of Wight County, Va. receives $141 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

Blair County, Penn. receives $16 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

Onandaga County, N.Y.  receives $26 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

Baltimore County, Md. receives $15 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

Anne Arundel County, Md, receives $10 in subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

New Castle County, Del. receives $18 in farm subsidies for every $1 invested in conservation.

So when agribusiness in the Chesapeake Bay talks about getting government off their back, its doubtful they're talking about shutting off the gusher of subsidies provided by the American taxpayer.