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Giant Mats of Green Slime in Lake Erie Signal a Need for New Economic Approaches to Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderFor the past 40 years, I have spent family summer vacations in Northern Michigan to enjoy a fresh water paradise of small lakes and rivers, along with the Great Lake Michigan.

Ghanbani, Slimeade

What does this have to do with economic growth? Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari of AP

This year, not all of the Great Lakes turned out to be great: Lake Erie was covered with massive algal mats at its western end, forcing the closure of Toledo’s water supply that serves 400,000 people. A sample of the intake water for Toledo looked like a glass of thick green slimeade.

So, what is the link between this latest water pollution debacle, economic growth, and a true-cost economy? I will argue that in a steady state, true-cost economy, there would be much less reliance on pollution regulations. The chief tool would be bans, along with significant harm charges, on those products and processes that threatened public health or jeopardized the functioning of life support systems for the earth.

What causes me to advocate such a major change in the U.S. approach to pollution can be seen in three big water pollution events this year. My CASSE blog in March dealt with two significant water pollution events earlier this year–the coal-processing spill that shut down the water supply to Charleston, West Virginia, and the bursting of a coal waste storage pond in North Carolina, sending toxic sludge 70 miles downstream in the Dan River.

In my March blog, I discussed better economic approaches to pollution that would be pursued in a true-cost, steady state economy.  Before going into these approaches, it is important to understand the huge frustration that the American public was experiencing in the 1960s from hundreds of water pollution incidents and the failure of governmental bodies to put a halt to this.

In the early 1970s, many of us worked to obtain the 1972 Clean Water Act that featured the promise of making waters of our nation fishable and swimmable by 1986. Two remarkable examples helped drive public awareness and force Congress to enact this law: the Cayahoga River catching on fire and Lake Erie becoming a dead lake.

If someone had told us that 40 years later Lake Erie would experience massive green slime algal mats, we would have said, “No thanks, we need a truly strong law that would bring back Lake Erie from the dead, not a law so permissive that four decades later we would have a monster slime blob in 2011 stretching 120 miles from Cleveland to Toledo, followed by yet another huge slime mass in 2014.”

So now we are confronted with the abysmal failures of the regulatory system at the state and federal level, along with the tepid responses to the latest pollution disaster in Lake Erie. The time has come to demand a change to our economic approaches to pollution and begin the transition to a true-cost, sustainable economy.

To get down to brass tacks on the Lake Erie green slime, we must recognize that the chief cause is agricultural runoff. According to Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, “the primary driver is the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie from agriculturally dominated watersheds.” The state of Ohio reports that two thirds of the phosphorus comes from farm lands.

So let’s start calling for a national ban on gigantic animal factory farms with hundreds and hundreds of animals crowded together. Such factory slum operations would not occur in a steady state economy. They are a microcosm of what happens with too much growth in numbers and pollution. When any population of animals or people get into overly crowded conditions, pollution overwhelms the carrying capacity of the land and water, disease increases, and violence breaks out.  Today, industrial agriculture is increasing in size and adverse impacts, although organic farming is making inroads.

While pushing for bans, we should also demand harm charges for the damages bad agricultural practices have on lakes. Look at the cost of losing a city’s water supply, the health costs, and the costs to the recreation economy in the region. Today animal factory operations and industrial agriculture escape monetary responsibility for the many harms they cause.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could require businesses to disclose their pollution externalities when they file their annual financial reports. The Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to disclose conflict minerals in their supply chains, thus setting a precedent for the SEC to act. Revelation of these pollution externalities would constitute the first step in forcing the creators to cover their true costs of production.

My argument runs counter to the major thrust taken to deal with air, land, and water pollution since Earth Day 1970, which was primarily a regulatory approach. Some of the pollution laws have worked quite well, providing crucial health benefits and safeguarding ecosystems, but many are not set to deal with the magnitude of the pollution issues of the 21st century. For example, powerful bee-killing pesticides are causing collapses of bee colonies nationwide. Such pesticides should be banned since they threaten human food supply, about two thirds of which depends on the pollinators. Other pesticides and herbicides kill vegetation relied upon by butterflies such as the monarch that needs milkweed to lay its eggs on.  Bans are possible. Several European countries banned the powerful herbicide atrazine in the early 1990s, but this poison is widely used in the United States despite substantial scientific evidence about its health impacts.

The response taken by environmental groups and official state and federal agencies to the grotesque pollution of Lake Erie has been primarily to call for better regulation, which leads to more bureaucratic procrastination and few results. No one has called for a ban on bad practices of industrial agriculture or called for a shutdown of the big, filthy animal feedlots that are a cesspool of pollution and disease. These should be outlawed! It is not impossible. The Michigan legislature did ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer.

The industrial agriculture system has grown so large in the United States that it is transgressing planetary boundaries, causing algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, bays, and estuaries. Certain parts of the economy, like those associated with industrial animal slums, need to shrink. Bans and harm charges must become frequently used economic tools.

Unlimited Competition Is Not Sustainable

by Gunnar Rundgren

Large farms are increasingly dominating crop production in the United States. In the early 1980s, most farms produced crops on less than 600 acres, but the majority of today’s farms grow crops on at least 1,100 acres. And many farms are ten times that size. Furthermore, in 1987 the midpoint dairy herd size was 80 cows; by 2007 it was 570 cows. The change in hogs is even more striking, from 1,200 hogs produced per year to 30,000. This long-term shift in farm size has been accompanied by greater specialization. Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, livestock operations were moved to sites away from crops. In 1900 there were dairy cows and hogs on three-fourths of all farms, but in 2005 only one farm in twenty had either dairy cows or hogs. This separation has allowed crop farmers to devote more time and resources to crop production and gradually increase yields and acreages.

Larger crop farms perform better financially, on average, than smaller farms. The difference is mainly in the cost of production. According to a report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Larger farms appear to be able to realize more production per unit of labor and capital. These financial advantages have persisted over time, which suggests that shifts of production to larger crop farms will likely continue in the future.

Research shows that farms with more than 2,000 acres use 2.7 hours of work per acre of corn and pay equipment costs of $432. In contrast, farms with 100 to 249 acres require more than four times as much labor and spend double the amount for equipment.

This scaling-up of farms causes a seldom recognized paradox in agriculture. Increases in farm productivity coincide with periods of poor returns for farmers. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in his 1910 annual report, wrote, “Year after year it has been my privilege to record another prosperous year in agriculture.” What has been called a golden age for American agriculture — the period between 1900 and 1914 — was a period of almost no growth in the sector. Output per worker increased by only one percent between 1900 and 1910, and total farm output by only eight percent. Meanwhile the population increased by a whopping 21 percent. The result was higher food prices and thus the prosperous years.

Conversely in the 1950s, agricultural output increased at a rapid pace as a result of increased productivity. However, the decade is remembered as a time of hardship for most farm families. Input prices went up and farm product prices fell. A million and a half families ultimately gave up farming in this decade as they couldn’t make ends meet. Those that survived were able to buy up the land from those that lost out. A similar period came in the 1980s when productivity grew three percent annually, product prices fell, and input prices and interest rates soared. Willard Cochrane writes, “In terms of agricultural development for the national economy the decade of 1980s was a huge success; in terms of the financial well-being of most farmers it was an economic nightmare.”

Combines on a big farm

Can the benefits of increasing scale on farms cover the social and environmental costs? (photo credit: T.P. Martins)

Farmers are stuck on a treadmill. Competition forces them to increase productivity, but the increased productivity leads to lower prices and economic hardship for the farmers. This treadmill is the reason for enormous increases in both farm size and productivity. The vanguard farmers adapt, mostly by increasing size, at the expense of their less successful colleagues.

For farmers who can’t compete, there is no way out — or rather there is only one way out — get out! This weeding out of small farms has happened locally and regionally, but the system ultimately works the same way globally, where all farmers compete with each other. Compare, for instance, conditions in Europe to the largest grain-growing areas around the world. For a European farmer, the landscape is varied, and roads, rivulets, hills, and buildings cause fields to be small. Because of land scarcity, land prices are also high and not determined primarily by agricultural productivity. The scale of acreage and machinery can never be as large as on the plains of the United States, Russia, or Argentina. European costs will be higher, even if European farmers can intensify production and get higher yields per acre.

The treadmill is driven by specialization and drives further specialization, filling each farm with just one or two crops or huge livestock operations. The economic and social implications are huge, but the environmental implications are even bigger. Large-scale landscapes get stripped of variation and biodiversity. These lands don’t produce the ecosystem services we need, and we’re left to try producing them elsewhere at high costs, assuming that’s possible.

This large-scale, linear, industrial model of farming has replaced a local, cyclical, and ecological model. The new model has yielded undeniable short-term economic success as measured by financial figures, but unlimited competition will never be sustainable. It’s amazing how running in place on a treadmill can lead us further and further astray.

Gunnar Rundgren has worked in organic farming for more than thirty years. He established the Torfolk farm together with Kari Örjavik, and he is the author of Garden Earth – From Hunter and Gatherer to Global Capitalism and Thereafter.