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The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl caused colossal harm to the agriculture sector in the United States. In response to these disasters, Congress passed legislation to provide a safety net for agribusinesses and stem the physical and financial shocks to the agriculture sector through price and income supports.
That was 100 years ago, and much has changed since then. Yet the safety net for farmers and ranchers remains the same. Taxpayers subsidize the incomes of agribusinesses through minimum prices, supply management, and other interventions to the market.
Even worse, these policies negatively impact the nation’s water systems by subsidizing a safety net that incentivizes production over risk management. This leads to increased farming on marginal lands and increased fertilizer use to produce more yield. In turn, chemicals in fertilizer then produces runoff into our nation’s rivers and lakes. And this increase in runoff has led to algal blooms in the Great Lakes and the southeast as well as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. This unvirtuous cycle of nitrogen fertilizer that runs downriver from midwestern farms to the Gulf of Mexico has caused up to $2.4 billion in damages to fisheries and marine habitat every year since 1980. Agriculture contributes about 60 percent of delivered nitrogen and more than 49 percent of delivered phosphorus to the Gulf. The Chesapeake Bay has also been negatively affected due to runoff, with 38 percent of the Bay’s nitrogen loads, 45 percent of its phosphorus, and 60 percent of its sediment loads due to agricultural runoff.
These environmental impacts have costs for both taxpayers and consumers. The government should reform these draconian safety net policies to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and allow farmers the opportunity to develop more resilient operations.
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