In what could be the first significant shot fired in the 2007 farm bill debate, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released a report on how Mississippi River Basin (MRB) fertilizer run-off is contributing to a massive oxygen-depleted hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Combining and updating studies done by government agencies since the mid-1990s, the EWG report claims the entire Missouri Bootheel, northwest Tennessee, a significant portion of northeast Arkansas and scattered Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes are chief run-off offenders.

EWG's hope is the debate will focus on this problem and political momentum will swing in its favor and against commodity subsidy payments. While admitting this desire, EWG claims its proposal won't hurt farmers. EWG wants commodity funds moved to conservation programs. Producers would then receive funds for on-farm environmental improvements. Such a funding shift would not only improve conservation efforts and alleviate the worsening hypoxic region in the Gulf, EWG says, but would take the WTO out of the subsidy equation.

“Conservation payments aren't (contentious) like (commodity program payments) are,” says study author Mary Booth, EWG senior scientist. “Farmers want to do the right thing — of that, we're convinced. They enjoy clean water and functioning ecosystems as much as anyone else. We must support them in their efforts to put those practices on the ground… This is part of our ongoing campaign to work to make the farm bill more sustainable and farmer-friendly.”

The dead zone

Whether one believes EWG's findings or not, come summer a massive dead zone will spread from the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. While not unique — there are oxygen-starved hypoxia zones at river mouths around the world — the Gulf zone is certainly the largest. First documented in the 1970s, the zone has swelled to a recent average of some 6,000 square miles.

Hypoxia occurs when huge algae blooms, largely fed by nutrients brought to the Gulf through run-off, die. The algal decomposition process then starves the water of oxygen, making it uninhabitable for marine life.

Despite years of scientific studies, plans and federally-backed voluntary programs, the hypoxia problem has only worsened. Forced to leave the shore far behind to make a living, Louisiana fishermen certainly know the cost. Researchers say the dead zone's impact on the $800 million fishing industry is undeniable.

“The reservoir of nitrogen available to be run-off into the Gulf is huge,” says Booth. “There's nitrogen stored in soils, in groundwater and the current year's input. There's almost an unlimited amount (of fertilizer), and the more it rains the more it'll be carried off.

“This is a worldwide problem. There are fisheries being wiped out all over the world. The number of hypoxic zones has doubled every decade since the 1960s. Fisheries are blinking out one by one. When you consider the number of people globally that get their protein from fish and the number of people who live on a shoreline, this is a serious problem.”

A framework

A year in the making, the EWG report — titled “Dead in the Water” — pulled data from nine existing databases.

“We wanted a firm foundation that could evaluate how nitrogen inputs get translated into aquatic nitrate that ends up in the Gulf,” says Booth. “We wanted to use that same framework to overlay our subsidy data on.”

Asked if there were any surprises in her findings, Booth cites the actual amount of fertilizer finding its way to the Gulf. “The portion of fertilizer comprised by nitrogen — 16 billion pounds applied annually in the MRB — is a big number. The cost of nitrogen run-off we estimated at $270 million between 1990 and 2002. At today's fertilizer prices…that's nearly $400 million (lost) just in the spring. And this isn't just a spring problem, although…the biggest pull of run-off is in that season. But $400 million just in the spring means a lot of money out of farmers' pockets.”

The EWG report was also an attempt to locate areas of the MRB disproportionately contributing to the problem of nitrogen loading in the Gulf. That, in turn, led the organization to identify “where we can increase conservation spending and get the most bang for the buck. We see this as a farmer-friendly approach because we're talking about increasing funding to farmers to allow them to do what they want to anyway. They're already signing up for these under-funded programs.”

Ally and adversary

On this point, at least, EWG has a surprising ally. While The Fertilizer Institute stays “relatively neutral on farm subsidy issues, we have been a vocal advocate of increasing money for environmental compliance,” says Kathy Mathers, the institute's vice president of public affairs. “We believe farmers want to do a good job and, when given the appropriate tools, they'll do so.

“If there's one area where we stand in agreement with EWG, it's absolutely that. (Federal conservation) programs are either not funded or the funding isn't utilized to its fullest. The government should be doing everything it can to insure the money earmarked for conservation practices gets into farmers' hands and makes a real difference on the ground.”

Asked about the institute's comments regarding conservation programs, Booth says, “we're happy to see we're on the same page. That's a starting point.”

However, Mathers says there may be disagreement over where conservation funds are utilized. The Fertilizer Institute doesn't like to see “good, productive land taken out of production just for the sake of (payments). But where there's fragile land where crops shouldn't be grown, (such payments are fine).”

Mathers is critical of EWG's methods, though. EWG, she says, is trying to split the agriculture community into camps favoring either farm subsidies or environmental compliance.

“Farmers are already doing quite a bit to manage the nutrients they use… (Farmers are facing) issues with high fertilizer prices. Right now, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find farmers applying fertilizer as insurance. So it's an odd argument for EWG to make that farmers are wantonly over-applying fertilizer. Farmers aren't over-applying fertilizer.”

She says two decades of data in the 20 major fertilizer-using states in the MRB bears this out. Between 1985 and 2005 there has been “level or decreasing” fertilizer use in those states.

Funding discrepancies

Over the last decade, funding level discrepancies between conservation and commodity payments have been significant. While commodity funding amounts change year-to-year, “conservation funding, basically, hasn't changed in the Mississippi River Basin…from 1995 onward,” says Booth.

EWG claims that conservation subsidies, per acre, pay more than commodity subsidies. “Of course, it depends on the amount of effort spent in putting in a conservation practice and maintaining it. But it pays well to put land into conservation. It certainly shouldn't be hardship on people to do (such projects).”

What about the area from the Bootheel south to the Gulf?

“The results of the study show there's definitely a lot of run-off happening. Some of that is related to rice agriculture. A big factor in this study is the luck of the draw as far as where you're farming. If you're near a main-stem river, your (fertilizer) input is likely to enter that river quickly and be conveyed to the Gulf quickly. That's opposed to farmers in wheat-growing areas where run-off has more time to be denitrified and taken biologically. Less of that gets to the Gulf.”

Looking at where the subsidies are being allocated, the EWG report says there are extremely high commodity payments when compared with conservation payments.

“We've got a lot of commodity support dollars going into (the chief run-off) counties. There are big opportunities to increase conservation payments and have a big effect on water quality. We're not telling anyone to stop farming, to stop using nitrogen fertilizer — none of that. We appreciate the realities faced by farmers that are economic and otherwise. But we are saying we need to rebuild and restore the ecological infrastructure that can kind of compensate for the inputs we're putting into the system…

“In the high pollution areas, conservation efforts are lower than in other parts of the MRB.

“That's exactly the opposite of what's needed. We need to ramp up the ecological infrastructure…the natural systems that can deal with this run-off. They just need to be put in place.

“It's like having a septic system for your house. We don't discharge sewage onto the street, we use septic systems.

“That's what we're talking about here: restoring the natural systems that can accomplish this. Along the way, we'll restore the landscape diversity, more trees, more wetlands, more wildlife, more things most people agree are desirable attributes.”

Soil tests

One finding of the EWG report is that only 17 percent of farmers regularly test their soils. This seems to fly in the face of nearly constant Extension admonitions to get such tests done. Booth says that figure comes straight from a USDA report.

“Interestingly, those who do soil test actually reduce their inputs by 6 pounds per acre. If that's the 6 pounds running off into streams, (the soil tests) make a big difference. Seventeen percent is a really, really low number. We'd like to see that improve.

“Farmers need support in this. So we're not just talking about increasing conservation payments but also staffing those offices of the NRCS and other entities that go out and help farmers.”

Mathers finds the percentage cited as dubious. “It sounds like an awfully low number. I think more soil testing is happening, just not on an annual basis. And it may not be recommended annually.”

Asked if The Fertilizer Institute has taken a position on causes of hypoxia zones, Mathers says she “hesitates to point at other industries because I wouldn't want them pointing at me.

“But I will say that from our perspective, rather than saying, ‘it must be this or that,’ we'd rather know our folks have the kinds of technical info to manage our products properly and keep our own house in order. If each sector works to do that — whether waste-water treatment plants or animal operations — that's about all one can ask.”

Booth insists the report is actually “a good news story” for farmers.

“This problem has seemed intractable and has stuck around with nothing happening…Because the problem is geographically concentrated the answer is clearly to increase conservation efforts in those regions. But until Congress sees fit to start funding (conservation) programs at needed levels, it won't change.

“But we should be able to change this. We should be able to farm in a way that doesn't threaten fisheries and marine and freshwater ecosystems. We all need fish and clean water.”


(To see EWG's report, visit http://www.ewg.org/reports/deadzone/)

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com