My last post introduced the problem of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, and I promised to start trying to answer that question. Today I’ll shed some light on some subsidies and federal policies that could be altered and bolstered in the right ways to stop nutrient-rich runoff from reaching the Mississippi River. I’m going to point out right away that although the most obvious way of preventing hypoxia is by reducing fertilizer use, this is also the most difficult and expensive tactic to implement. My goal is to start laying out elements of a more cost effective, pragmatic plan for ameliorating hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.
The agricultural subsidies that I discuss here are measures that can be implemented through various policy tools (e.g. direct payments, technical assistance, tax incentives) to reduce costs for producers and attempt to benefit the economy in doing so. One positive form of subsidy, known as a cross-compliance program, discourages creation of farmland from current wetlands or land that is highly erodible. The programs are “cross-compliant” because to receive any agriculture-related federal benefits (e.g. commodity income and price support), a farmer must comply with these programs. Therefore, the programs are voluntary; estimates lay the participation rate at about fifty percent. These conservation compliance mechanisms were first enacted in the Food Security Act of 1985, “the 1985 farm law,” and part of this law was the “Swampbuster” requirement, which prohibits the draining of wetlands.
Wetlands are very valuable ecosystems. They protect against floods, purify water, and provide habitat for countless species. For our purposes the most important characteristic of wetlands is their filtration of phosphorus and nitrogen from agricultural runoff—they are great buffer zones for fields. Thus, preventing hypoxia without reducing fertilizer can rely in part on blocking that fertilizer from reaching watersheds: that is, trapping it in wetlands.
But wetlands, when drained, often provide great fertile soil for farming. For most of US history wetlands have been viewed as bogs, swamps, or marshes to be dried and converted to more useful land. Today, the importance of wetland conservation is recognized, but not by everyone; especially those who would profit from having “useful land.”
The areas that face few regulations or incentives to conserve wetlands may have between 1.5 and 3.3 million acres of wetlands to convert to agricultural land should it become profitable. Such areas, including many agriculturally reliant Midwestern and Plains States of the Corn Belt, have little or no State wetland regulation. Swampbuster might be the only remaining policy disincentive to draining isolated wetlands in the regions mentioned above, which can be also considered high-risk areas for heavy runoff rates.
How can subsidies and Swampbuster work cohesively to protect and restore wetlands? Again, I have no cornucopian responses, but more information (and questions) will be forthcoming.