Prevention Is the Solution, But Voluntary Actions Fall Short
America has a serious problem with nitrate contamination of drinking water – and it is most severe in the small communities that can least afford to fix it.
The 1985 federal farm bill created a conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers. In return for generous farm subsidies, farmers agreed to take steps to cut erosion and polluted runoff from their most vulnerable cropland, and to not drain wetlands unless they mitigated the loss.
In December 2015, the 1,500 residents of Erie, Ill., received a warning that the community’s tap water should not be given to babies under 6 months old, or used to mix formula or juice for those infants.
The Raccoon River in central Iowa runs through one of the most intensely farmed regions of the nation. Agriculture is vital to the area’s economy, but polluted runoff from farms poses an acute threat to residents’ tap water – and a daunting challenge to utilities struggling to keep the water clean.
After a decline in crop prices in 2014 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture boosted farmers' income by more than $13 billion through two newly enacted subsidy programs. But during the same period, another USDA program paid out nearly as much to “compensate” the same farmers for the same decline in prices. In all, this double-dipping cost American taxpayers almost $23.9 billion.
Mapping Cover Crops on Corn and Soybeans in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, 2015-2016
Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger? Think Again.
The key to ending world hunger while protecting the environment is to help small farmers in the developing world increase their productivity and income.
A Lottery That’s a Sure Bet
It’s a complete misnomer even to call the federal crop insurance program “insurance.” It works nothing like the private insurance market because taxpayers pay about 60 percent of the premiums, all the costs of administering the program and a large share of the claims payouts. Moreover, what crop insurance deems a “loss” bears little resemblance to any actual financial losses a farm family experiences. The cost to growers is so low that over time most can expect to collect far more in payouts than they pay in premiums. In other words, most farmers make money by just by buying a crop insurance policy.
Voluntary Programs Fail to Clean Up Dirty Water
Drinking water, lakes and rivers in Iowa and across the Corn Belt are in serious trouble because of polluted farm runoff. To tackle the problem, for decades we’ve taken the approach favored by agricultural interests – making federal tax dollars available for conservation practices that curb runoff, encouraging farmers to adopt those practices, then hoping enough of them volunteer to do the right thing.
It Won’t Kill Crop Insurance
The cost to taxpayers of providing crop insurance to farmers has more than tripled since 2001, rising from an average of about $3 billion a year in 2001-2003 to more than $10 billion a year in 2012-2014. The increase is largely the result of sharp jumps in the cost of subsidizing both farmers’ premiums and the companies that sell crop insurance.