Corporate Agribusiness Pollution Across America

Media Releases

Environment Minnesota Research & Policy Center

Minneapolis (November 18, 2010) — Today Environment Minnesota released a report examining the role of corporate agribusinesses across the country – including Cargill and ADM – in the pollution of America’s waterways and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The group released the new report: Corporate Agribusiness and America’s Waterways: The Role of America’s Biggest Agribusiness Companies in the Pollution of our Rivers, Lakes, and Coastal Waterways, today and called for the EPA and the state of Minnesota to ensure that companies like Cargill take full responsibility for the air and water pollution from their factory hog farms.

Recent news in Minnesota has outlined the serious and increasing water pollution problems in the state and the ineffectiveness of the programs designed to deal with them. Minnesota voters overwhelmingly approved the Land and Water Legacy Amendment during the 2008 elections, clearly showing strong support for restoring clean water and preserving the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” But two years later, why haven’t clean up programs been more successful, especially for some of the worst pollution, that from agricultural runoff? Today’s report offers clues as to how corporate agribusiness in the Midwest and across the country not only help create pollution, but have a hand in the policy environment that worsens the problem and hampers solutions.

Two of the national case studies deal with companies based in or with a large presence in Minnesota. Cargill, based in suburban Minneapolis, has been ranked by Forbes magazine as the largest privately held company in America for most of the last decade. Cargill plays a part in many sectors of the agricultural economy, producing, processing and marketing beef, poultry, eggs, oilseeds, sugar, and many other food ingredients. It produces salt and steel and even has a financial services branch engaging in futures trading and risk management. In the report, one case study shows Cargill’s contribution to the pollution of the Illinois River, which flows from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Cargill Meat Solutions’ Beardstown facility on the Illinois River is the second largest discharger of toxic chemicals to waterways in Illinois and the 13th largest discharger in the United States, dumping 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals in the Illinois River in 2008 according to the U.S.EPAs Toxic Release Inventory.

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), based in Decatur Illinois, is the leading processor of corn and produces animal feed, ethanol fuel, and high fructose corn syrup. With its enormous size, substantial market power, and political clout, ADM has helped manipulate public policy so that it effectively limits farmers options and pushes them into growing corn   on a larger and larger scale. The corn market in the United State owes its current shape to three ADM-supported policies – federal subsidies for the production of corn, support for ethanol production, and protection for the domestic sugar market.  These policies work to the economic benefit to ADM with an often detrimental effect to rural communities and farmers.

Midwest corn production which is driven by the Federal Farm Bill is a major factor in the development of the dead zone roughly the size of Massachusetts that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each year. Corn and soybeans contribute half of the nitrogen and a quarter of the phosphorus in the Gulf. The occurrence of dead zones in the U.S. has increased 30-fold since 1960. Since the early 2000s, industrial agribusiness policies have pushed farmers to plant 12.1 million additional acres of corn, further exacerbating nutrient pollution to waterways in the Midwest and in the Gulf.

In Minnesota, the influence of corporate agribusiness has dominated the news recently. The controversy surrounding the documentary Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story revealed the power and influence corporate agribusiness holds here in Minnesota, particularly within institutions like the University of Minnesota. Internal University emails revealed that one of the concerns with the movie was its criticism of the Federal Farm Bill and that this would offend corporate agriculture interests. The report released today demonstrates the scope of these problems all across the country.

It’s also clear that large-scale feedlot confinements in Minnesota are a major contributor to the state’s water pollution problems that have put over 1200 lakes and 400 rivers on the list of “impaired” waterways. Existing programs to clean up some of Minnesota’s most polluted lakes have hit major roadblocks. In the case of Lake Independence, a state approved cleanup plan sought to sign up 41 farmers with operations surrounding the lake to receive money for projects to curb the pollution from chemical fertilizer and manure runoff. However, only one farmer agreed to participate, and the lake remains in bad shape. Thousands of agricultural operations across the state are likely out of compliance with pollution laws but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s record of tracking and implementing cleanup is poor. Clean water advocates are calling for a renewed focus on reducing pollution from agribusiness and are working for new solutions to the growing problem.

Samantha Chadwick, the Preservation Advocate for Environment Minnesota said “As Thanksgiving approaches, Minnesotans are thankful for beautiful waters in Minnesota, like their local lake, or the Mississippi, just as they are thankful for the food on the table.  But more and more people are realizing that multi-national companies are now involved in the production of a lot of our food, and sadly, in ways that are polluting our beloved waterways”.

“That’s why Environment Minnesota believes we need new policies that can solve these problems. We need to restore the protections of the Clean Water Act to clearly protect all Minnesota waterways, we need Federal Farm policies such as the Conservation Stewardship Program that reward farmers for producing food in ways the enhance the environment. In Minnesota, we need to better target the Clean Water Funds to address the most critical non-point pollution sources, better permitting and enforcement for all feedlot operations, and some accountability mechanisms where voluntary cleanup programs are not effective.”

As shown in the report, Cargill and ADM, and the situation in Minnesota hardly stand alone.  Across the country, agribusiness has become more industrialized, and it is creating an industrial scale of pollution for America’s waters.   Across the country, agribusiness contributes to making 100,000 miles of rivers and 2,500 square miles of inland lakes too polluted to sustain important uses such as swimming, fishing, drinking, and wildlife habitat.

“Environment Minnesota urges the EPA and decision makers in Minnesota to start holding corporate agribusiness accountable,” concluded Chadwick.