Chicago, IL—Big agribusiness interests are among the largest roadblocks to clean water in the United States, according to a new report by Environment Illinois Research & Policy Center. The report, “Growing Influence: The Political Power of Agribusiness and the Fouling of America’s Waterways,” released today, analyzes campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures from agribusiness interests—and describes how companies are using their political influence to oppose clean water protections.
"When Wall Street runs the farm, pollution runs off into our environment," said Lauren Monahan, field organizer with Environment Illinois. "Giant agricultural companies are throwing around millions of dollars to fight to continue polluting our rivers, lakes, and streams."
The report's analysis of campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures found the following:
- Over the past decade, ten large agribusiness interests gave $35 million to congressional candidates. They were led by the American Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million.
- Agribusiness interests gave more than $120 million to state-level candidates, party committees and ballot measures during the same period.
- In Illinois, agricultural interests have donated more than $6 million to state level political campaigns since 2000—including more than $360,000 in contributions to gubernatorial candidates in 2010.
“Illinois’s lax laws have made our state a safe-haven for polluters, which create more waste and more problems” said Karen Hudson, a member of Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, a group which has petitioned U.S. EPA regarding inadequacies in Illinois's Clean Water Act program for CAFOs. “My grandkids deserve clean drinking water.”
The political influence of big agribusiness is bolstered by an army of lobbyists:
- From 2005 to 2010, the 10 leading agribusiness interests spent $127 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, fielding 159 lobbyists in 2010.
- Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau led the pack, fielding 80 lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in 2010.
- In Illinois, the Illinois Agricultural Association (the state’s Farm Bureau affiliate) maintains a stable of 20 registered lobbyists working to influence legislative policy and administrative decision-making. The organization spent $3.3 million on government affairs in 2008 alone, out of a total budget of around $40 million.
Pollution from agriculture contributes to poor water quality here in Illinois and throughout the country. Too many of Illinois’s waterways are so polluted that they are unsafe for fishing or swimming or cannot maintain healthy populations of wildlife.
"Water is precious," said Illinois Environmental Council executive director Jennifer Walling. "We cannot afford to do nothing while polluted runoff damages our cherished lakes and rivers."
Big Agribusiness interests—including lobbyists from Monsanto, Cargill, Land O'Lakes and Perdue—blocked a 2010 effort to restore Clean Water Act Protections to all American waterways. Without those protections, more than half of Illinois's streams, and 150,000 acres of wetlands—including feeder waters for 1.7 million Illinoisan's drinking water supplies—are now vulnerable to pollution.
“The Farm Bureau does not truly represent farmers, but they do a very good job of putting a farmer’s face on their corporate agenda,” said family farmer Jody Osmund of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, who ended his of the Farm Bureau membership because of the Bureau’s stances. “The Bureau tells farmers their polluting corporate practices are the only way to make a profit but my farm shows that is absolutely not the case”.
Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the Midwest's largest corn processor, is headquartered in Decatur, Illinois. ADM has driven policy changes that have made corn the dominant crop in the Midwest, increasing the use of heavy chemical fertilizers and pesticides, much of which washes into the Mississippi River. Nutrient pollution from this fertilizer is the leading cause of the Massachusetts-sized dead zone that develops in the Gulf of Mexico every year. ADM spent $1.3 million on Congressional candidates in the last decade and $6.9 million on lobbying over the past six years.
Agribusiness political pressure is one reason why Illinois currently has one of the Midwest's least protective regulatory regimes for limiting pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)—also called factory farms.
In September, 40,000 fish were killed along ten miles of the Sangamon River and a tributary. The suspected culprit, one of Illinois's largest factory farms, was applying liquid cow manure and lagoon solids to nearby fields without a permit. Asked about the frequency of similar such fish kills in Illinois, an Illinois EPA official told a reporter, "I would say they happen several times a year, almost once a month."
Agribusiness interests have used their clout to support a host of Illinois bills and regulatory initiatives designed to further weaken factory farm clean water protections, including bills to:
- Eliminate public hearings on new construction at all but the very largest factory farms,
- Make it illegal for anyone to take a photo of a factory farm— which would make it far more difficult for concerned citizens to document environmental violations they see, and
- Block so-called "nuisance" lawsuits—which have sometimes been citizens’ only legal recourse against factory farms polluting their air and water.
Agribusiness interests' political clout also extends to state agencies: Residents of rural Jo Daviess County have expressed strong concern about a proposed 11,000-cow dairy farm, which would pollute the Apple River with contamination from the 90 million gallons of manure it would spread on nearby fields every year.
The Jo Daviess County Board voted overwhelmingly to reject the megadairy, but the Illinois Department of Agriculture overruled that decision. In the ensuing court battle, the Farm Bureau has paid the megadairy owner's legal fees.
"Throughout our region, people's lives and livelihoods depend on having both clean water and bountiful farms." said Monahan, "To ensure that both will be part of our future, it's critical to strengthen Illinois's protections for clean water and reduce agricultural pollution—and our policymakers must stand for clean water even if that means standing up to the agribusinesses lobby."