Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, health tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG. You can opt-out at any time. [Privacy]


Required conservation practices poorly monitored, farmers consistently denied conservation money, large farms continue to reap l

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, September 10, 2007

Washington – As the five major commodity crops reap billions in taxpayer dollars each year, nearly 70 percent of farmer requests for voluntary conservation assistance go unfunded and soil erosion rules for subsidy recipients are barely enforced. The result: 1.7 billion tons of topsoil erodes off agricultural fields nationwide, polluting America's waters and fisheries with sediment and millions of pounds of fertilizer and pesticides, according to a new report from Environmental Working Group, Trouble Downstream: Upgrading Conservation Compliance.

Conservation compliance policy requires farmers to implement basic soil conservation practices to receive government subsidies. But as the report shows, for a number of factors, including poor enforcement, conservation compliance alone has proven woefully inadequate to solve the nation's water quality problems and must be updated.

Lavish subsidies for large farmers, combined with slack enforcement of conservation compliance and significant under-funding of voluntary cost-share conservation programs has produced a massive and chronic water pollution problem: the 'Dead Zone' where the Mississippi River pours into the Gulf of Mexico.

Each spring, soil erosion and fertilizer run-off from farms in the Mississippi River Basin kills off most aquatic life in an area the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico called the 'Dead Zone.' This year, the 'Dead Zone' is estimated to be the third largest on record. Scientists have identified fertilizer and animal manure run-off from farmland as the primary culprit in the formation and growth of the 'Dead Zone' every year.

Today, EWG released Trouble Downstream: Upgrading Conservation Compliance. A report detailing how the outdated "conservation compliance" program, which provided federal tax dollars to commodity crop farmers for the prevention of soil erosion, has failed by ignoring the environmental hazards caused by fertilizer runoff.

Even more disturbing, taxpayer dollars in the form of federal farm subsidies to commodity crop producers (heavy users of fertilizer nutrients) are contributing to this environmental catastrophe. The problem could grow worse with the rapidly expanding production of corn and other crops as a result of the biofuels boom. Furthermore, conservation compliance singularly focuses on soil erosion while much of today's agricultural-environmental challenges involve fertilizer pollution, which is not managed by conservation compliance.

"It makes sense to expect that taxpayer dollars spent supporting crop production does not result in soil erosion or fertilizer pollution of our nation's waters. It's high time for Congress to require more environmental protection in exchange for farm subsidies, especially now, when budgets are tight, and there isn't enough money to solve problems with the conventional voluntary cost-share approach," says Michelle Perez, Senior Analyst and primary author of the EWG report.

"The Mississippi River Basin Water Quality Collaborative feels that expanding and strengthening Conservation Compliance on farmland is critical to the health of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico as well as water quality in the rivers and lakes in our states," says Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director for the Iowa Environmental Council and Chair of the Collaborative's Farm Program Workgroup.

"Reducing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico needs to become a national priority. While nitrogen and phosphorus pollution comes from many sources, one of the main strategies to fight the growing threat of the Dead Zone is to reduce the amount of fertilizer pollution that reaches our nation's waters from our agricultural fields—much of this pollution could be prevented if our farmland wasn't being allowed to erode away," says Matt Rota, Water Program Director for the Gulf Restoration Network.

"Soil erosion and fertilizer runoff are degrading Kentucky's waters and contributing to major problems in the Ohio River, Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. Conservation Compliance is an established program in the Farm Bill that should be expanded and strengthened to benefit farmers who responsibly protect our waters through proven conservation practices," says Jason Flickner, Water Resources Program Director for the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

"To save our soil, our rivers, and fisheries, we need reform in the conservation compliance program. We can think of the need to set, uphold, and enforce effective standards as 'no farm left behind,'" says Kathleen Logan Smith, Executive Director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

"The Environmental Working Group's report on conservation compliance shows that improvements in agricultural practices and policies could result in much cleaner water for American citizens," says Stacy James, PhD, Clean Water Program Coordinator for the Prairie Rivers Network.

Key Findings in Trouble Downstream















  1. Due to lax standards and implementation problems, the conservation compliance program is missing cost-effective opportunities to make further, substantial reductions in soil erosion on U.S. cropland.
  2. Without corrections to policy design constraints and adequate staff funding to implement the program effectively, conservation compliance will not reduce soil erosion on the majority of U.S. cropland to rates considered "sustainable."
  3. Since geographic areas heavily associated with crop subsidies are linked with high levels of agricultural nutrient pollution, current conservation compliance policy misses an opportunity to prevent or reduce pollution that farm subsidies may inadvertently enable.
  4. Conservation compliance is a valid eligibility requirement for farmers receiving commodity subsidies since the current voluntary, financial assistance approach to solving agricultural environmental problems leaves 70 percent of farmer applications unfunded.
  5. Conservation compliance should be expanded and strengthened to help reduce the additional soil erosion and nutrient pollution associated with the increase in agricultural biofuels production.


Click here for a short version of Trouble Downstream: Upgrading Conservation Compliance.


Members of the Mississippi Water Quality Collaborative that are jointly releasing this report include:

Environmental Law & Policy Center (nine states in the MS River Basin)

Gulf Restoration Network (Mississippi and Louisiana)

Iowa Environmental Council

Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Inc.

Louisiana Environmental Action Network

Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc. (Wisconsin)

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy

Missouri Coalition for the Environment

Prairie Rivers Network (Illinois)

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Tennessee)

Tennessee Clean Water Network

The Minnesota Project


# # #

The EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. Visit to learn more about the EWG's farm subsidy analysis.

Key Issues: