Growing Influence

The Political Power of Agribusiness and the Fouling of America's Waterways
Released by: Environment Illinois Research and Education Center

The agribusiness lobby is well known as one of the most powerful in Washington, D.C., and many states. Less well known is the fact that big agribusiness interests are among the largest roadblocks to cleaner water for the American people.

Big agribusiness corporations have invested millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying to defend agricultural practices that pollute America’s rivers, lakes and ocean waters and to defeat common-sense measures to clean up our waterways. Over the past decade, just 10 agribusiness corporations or groups gave more than $35 million in campaign contributions to congressional candidates.

As the water pollution problems caused by big agribusiness continue to mount – ranging from the growing “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the fouling of countless streams and lakes with excessive nutrients, bacteria, sediment and pesticides – the time has come for public officials to resist the entrenched power of big agribusiness and implement strong measures to protect our waterways. Pollution from agribusiness is a growing threat to America’s waterways.

  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pollution from agriculture contributes to poor water quality in more than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams in the United States, along with 2,500 square miles of lakes and 2,900 square miles of estuaries. These waters are so polluted that they are unsafe for fishing, swimming, or the maintenance of healthy populations of wildlife.
  • The number of documented areas of low dissolved oxygen off America’s coasts – often called “dead zones” – has increased from 12 in 1960 to 300 today. This includes the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which covered a record area of roughly 8,000 square miles in 2008 – roughly the size of New Jersey.

Big agribusiness is among the nation’s most powerful special interest lobbies.

  • Over the past decade, ten large agribusiness interests gave $35 million to congressional candidates – led by the American Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million. (See Table ES-1.) Additionally, agribusiness interests gave more than $120 million to state-level candidates, party committees and ballot measures.
  • From 2005 to 2010, the 10 leading agribusiness interests spent $127 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, fielding 159 lobbyists in 2010 – one lobbyist for every four members of the House and the Senate. Monsanto and the American Farm Bureau led the pack, fielding 80 lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in 2010. (See Table ES-2.)

Big agribusiness has used its political power to stand in the way of clean water for all Americans. Recent examples include:

  • Denying Clean Water Act protection to key waterways: Big agribusiness interests – including lobbyists from Monsanto, Cargill, Land O’Lakes and Perdue (through the National Turkey Federation) – blocked a 2010 effort to restore Clean Water Act protections to all American waterways, increasing the likelihood that polluters, including agribusiness interests, will be able to pollute intermittent waterways, isolated wetlands and sensitive headwaters streams with impunity.
  • Derailing Chesapeake Bay cleanup: Agribusiness lobbyists – including lobbyists working for Tyson Foods and the American Farm Bureau – derailed a comprehensive Chesapeake Bay restoration bill in 2010 that would have required all polluters to do their share to restore the ecologically imperiled bay to health, while also providing billions of dollars in funds for bay cleanup.
  • Opposing long-overdue pesticide protections: Agribusiness interests, led by CropLife America (a D.C. lobby representing pesticide manufacturers) backed legislation that would prevent the EPA from closing a long-standing loophole in its regulation of pesticide discharges to waterways – even though the regulation does not apply to the use of pesticides on crops. The American Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Crystal Sugar, and Land O’Lakes were the four top contributors to the 2010 congressional campaign of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Collin Peterson (MN), collectively giving more than $50,000. Although the bill failed to pass in 2010, it is likely to return in the 2011 session of Congress.
  • Standing in the way of clean water at the state level:
    • Retaliating against opponents by backing state legislation to defund an environmental law clinic in Maryland that represented citizens objecting to the discharge of dangerous bacteria into the Pocomoke River by chicken producer Perdue Farms.
    • Securing lax regulation on concentrated animal farms in Illinois through the expenditure of millions of dollars in contributions to candidates for state office and the hiring of dozens of lobbyists.
    • Silencing local communities concerned about the pollution impacts of dairy megafarms in Wisconsin by securing new siting rules for factory dairy farms allegedly written by the dairy industry itself.

Federal and state governments should stand up to corporate agribusiness lobbyists and protect and restore America’s waterways by:

  • Banning the worst agribusiness practices, including unsafe storage of manure and the over-application of manure on cropland.
  • Guaranteeing Clean Water Act protection to all of America’s waterways.
  • Holding corporate agribusiness responsible for its pollution by clarifying that corporations that own animals are legally responsible for the waste they produce.
  • Enforcing existing laws by requiring agribusiness operations to meet specific limits on pollution where necessary to restore a polluted waterway to health, requiring factory farms that discharge to waterways to obtain water pollution permits for their operations, and ensuring that state governments properly implement the Clean Water Act.
  • Giving environmental laws real teeth by beefing up inspections and ensuring that repeated or serious violations of water pollution laws are met with real penalties, not slaps on the wrist.
  • Ensuring environmental transparency by giving citizens access to detailed information about factory farms and other agribusiness facilities in their communities, including information about discharges of pollution to the environment.
  • Encouraging better agricultural practices and considering systemic reforms to ensure that American agriculture delivers safe, healthy food without destroying our waterways.