Elizabeth Sawin, “Dead Zone Economics”
The Sustainability Institute
October 1, 2002
The headline in the August 16 issue of Science magazine is ominous—“Dead Zone Grows.” To the right of the headline is a map of the Gulf of Mexico. And drawn on the map, hugging the shoreline, is an irregular green stripe. This is the Dead Zone, and area of the Gulf where oxygen levels are so low that most marine organisms—including crab and shrimp—cannot survive. A primary cause of the problem is fertilizer runoff from farms in the Mississippi River watershed. The runoff stimulates algae blooms. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose, using up oxygen in the process.
This year the Dead Zone is bigger than ever before -- 22,000 square kilometers—an area larger than New Jersey….
Farmers—like all entrepreneurs in free-market systems— compete to stay in business. And the terms of that competition are well defined. Who can produce the most grain for the least cost of labor, land, machinery, and inputs?The farmers who are the best at maximizing this equation—the most “efficient” farmers—are the most likely to stay in business. As the “least efficient” farmers and farming practices disappear, farming as a whole becomes more and more efficient. This has brought enormous innovation and gains in productivity. Yields of corn have risen from about 30 bushels per acre in 1940 to around 120 bushels per acre today….
The kind of efficiency that determines whether a farmer earns a profit and manages to hold on to his land is a very particular efficiency. It is the efficiency of producing just one thing—a crop—with the frugal use of a few things—labor, land, equipment, and inputs, like seed and fertilizer. There is nothing in this equation about producing health in the Gulf of Mexico or about being frugal with water quality. In the equation that determines who survives in farming, the Gulf of Mexico is invisible. And that is why the Gulf of Mexico has a Dead Zone and why that Dead Zone is growing.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing in our current definition of efficiency that is a natural law. We could re-orient our thinking to expand what we reward. We could begin to think of clean water or regenerating soil as products of farming in addition to wheat and barley. Many European countries have done just that. Farmers and farmland are seen as producing beauty, water purification and biodiversity as well as crops, and government programs offer payments for these other kinds of productivity.