Federal Agricultural Policy: A Harvest of Environmental Abuse


Full Study Available in PDF Format

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Farm Programs
  • Case Study: Sugar Subsidies and the Everglades
  • Other Farm Programs
  • Current Fertilizer and Pesticide Use
  • Commodity Programs and Chemical Use
  • Environmental Fate of Agricultural Chemicals
  • Conclusion
  • End Notes

Executive Summary

In the current debate over the re-authorization of the Clean Water Act, environmentalists, in their zeal to condemn big business as the source of America’s “dirty” water, have overlooked a simple fact. Agricultural runoff is now the number one source of pollution in the nations rivers, streams, and lakes. As many other sources of pollution have been controlled agriculture has emerged as the largest source of water pollution in the nation.


Although the last decade has seen an increased awareness of the environmental effects of U.S. agriculture, the fundamental premises of U.S. agricultural policy have remained intact since the Great Depression. These farm programs were designed in an era before commercial pesticides, fertilizers and modern farming techniques. In many instances they have had and continue to have detrimental effects on the environment.


The U.S. sugar program is responsible for not only increased sugar production in south Florida but also more intensive sugar cane production, contributing to the increased phosphorus contamination of the Everglades which is disrupting the unique nature of the ecosystem. The elimination of the U.S. sugar program would likely have a significant beneficial effect on the Everglades ecosystem.


Even the field crop programs can have detrimental environmental effects. Wheat, corn and field grain programs contribute to the intensive use of land. An analysis of data from six major farm states shows that a fifty percent reduction in subsidies would decrease per acre chemical use by an estimated 17 percent and fertilizer use by and estimated 14 percent. The complete elimination of subsidies could result in a 35 percent reduction in chemical use per acre and a 29 percent reduction in fertilizer use per acre.


Another example of government induced environmental damage is the USDA peanut program. By requiring peanuts to be grown in only a handful of counties in the entire country, USDA indirectly increases the use of pesticides on peanuts.


Overall, consumers, taxpayers and the environment would be better off under a free market agricultural policy. Direct and indirect payments to farmers should be eliminated and all supply control programs should be ended.