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Subsidies with Responsibilities: Placing Stewardship and Disclosure Conditions on Government Payments to Large Scale Commodity Crop Operations

By Linda Breggin and D. Bruce Myers Jr.

The last century marked a sea change in the way agricultural operations are conducted. This “industrialization” of agriculture has significantly increased efficiency and yields, but it also has generated — as an unintended byproduct — pollution. The pollution resulting from commodity crop operations can have harmful effects locally and downstream. Typically, when the production of a good generates adverse environmental effects, the firm that profits from the activity is required to minimize the impacts. This is rarely the case in the agriculture sector, which is exempt from key provisions of the federal environmental laws. As a result, the harms are externalized and the public bears the pollution costs. The federal taxpayer also supports the agricultural sector through myriad farm subsidy programs. Large-scale farms — those with annual sales of $500,000 or more — represented six percent of U.S. farms in 2009 but received more than half of government commodity payments. These subsidy recipients typically are not required as a condition of receiving payments to implement measures that will protect the environment from pollution generated by on-farm activities. The authors present two recommendations for reform, neither of which would require additional federal subsidy payments. First, large-scale commodity crop operations that opt to receive any form of federal farm subsidy should assume responsibility for implementing a set of baseline stewardship measures to reduce nutrient pollution. Second, these same farms should report on the quantity, type, and timing of fertilizers they apply.

Cite as: Linda Breggin and D. Bruce Myers Jr., Subsidies with Responsibilities: Placing Stewardship and Disclosure Conditions on Government Payments to Large Scale Commodity Crop Operations, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 487 (2013).

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