The Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone: Mess, Problem, or Puzzle?

By RFF Weekly Policy Commentary; Series Editor Ian Parry
RFF Weekly Policy Commentary; October 1, 2007

Welcome to the RFF Weekly Policy Commentary, which is meant to provide an easy way to learn about important policy issues related to environmental, energy, urban, and public health problems.

This week we’re very pleased to introduce Don Scavia, who will discuss the "dead zone," a large area of low-oxygen water in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by agricultural fertilizer use. We plan to revisit environmental and other implications of agricultural and land use policies in several future commentaries, for example, on pesticide use, forest biodiversity, food safety, and agricultural land set asides. Next week our invited expert is Matthew Kahn, who will be discussing the environmental effects of urban growth.

The Gulf of Mexico‘s Dead Zone: Mess, Problem, or Puzzle?
Don Scavia

Issues affecting stakeholders tend to be messes, problems, or puzzles. Messes have both arguable issue definitions and arguable solutions. In problems, stakeholders agree on the issue definition, but disagree on the solution because multiple solutions exist. In puzzles, they agree both with the definition of the issue and its solution. 

This is a useful framework for describing the evolution of a seemingly intractable environmental problem: the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where on a seasonal basis, oxygen levels fall so low that most aquatic species cannot survive. Hypoxia is the scientific term for the 20,000 square kilometers of low-oxygen waters off the Louisiana coast, right in the middle of the most important commercial and recreational fisheries in the continental United States.


Whether this dead zone is natural or human-caused, whether the primary cause is organic carbon or fertilizer nutrients, and where those nutrients come from, were resolved in the 1990s through a series of consensus-forming technical studies and integrated assessments, that I was privileged to lead. So, we moved from mess to problem.


A solution was agreed upon when a federal-state-tribal Task Force called for reducing nitrogen loads from the Mississippi River Basin by 30 percent through funding farmers to remove land from production, creating and preserving conservation buffers and wetlands, and using best management practices in the Corn Belt. Problem now becomes puzzle.


The puzzle – agreed-upon issue and solution – should have at least moved us in the right direction. But it has not, and little progress has been made even though all of the necessary tools have been available for years. Best management practices, including appropriate fertilizer application, are well known. The ability of streamside buffers and wetlands to keep excess nutrients out of streams, rivers, and the Gulf are demonstrably effective. But, nutrient loads are up, the dead zone is as big as ever, and there is little expectation that either will decrease in the near future. So, why are we moving backward? 


There are two reasons: first, while the Task Force delivered their action plan in 2001, it was never followed by funding and the new administration took almost two years to convene subsequent Task Force meetings that simply rehashed and reviewed previous work and agreements. Second, demand for corn ethanol, known around Washington as "political holy water," surged, and environmental elements of the action plan were trampled as prices rose to $3- and $4-a-bushel. The market, encouraged by political operatives at all levels, pushed for more corn from both existing lands and lands set aside for conservation. As a result, in 2007 there were millions of additional acres in corn, 1.2 million metric tons of nitrogen loaded to the Gulf, and the third largest dead zone since records were first kept 22 years ago.


Don Scavia

Scavia is a professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, where he is also director of the Michigan Sea Grant Program.

He is co-editor of From the Corn Belt to the Gulf, recently published by RFF Press.

Is there hope? I think so, and it lies in the current farm and energy bill debates. Policy decisions about environmental benefits from agriculture are incontrovertibly bound to decisions about commodity programs. Commodity production has had indisputable environmental effects, and past farm policy has invested in commodity programs to a greater degree than conservation – often trading them off against each other. This round of debate could be different, and I’d like to offer some thoughts, adapted from the closing chapter of our recent book, From the Corn Belt to the Gulf, on how conservation programs, modified in concert with commodity programs, could help breathe some life – and oxygen – back into the Gulf.

Paying farmers to set aside land can improve soil conservation, water quality, and habitat. However, keeping that land in retirement or adding additional acres can be difficult when commodity prices or price supports are high. These programs need to incorporate production as influenced by commodity programs, and they need to provide farmers with benefits beyond what they would receive from commodity-supported production. The government should not allow enrolled acres to come out of retirement to reduce commodity prices.

Targeting conservation funds has been employed in a variety of ways to make efforts more effective, and studies have shown it is cost-effective. However, U.S. policy has been both to achieve conservation goals and get cash to rural areas, thereby subsidizing conservation practices that are broadly distributed across the nation. More efficient nutrient-load reduction benefits could be obtained if programs were targeted toward Corn-Belt states that are responsible for the majority of the nutrient load flowing to the Gulf.

Most agricultural conservation programs use best management practices, rather than performance standards, even though economists and natural scientists agree that the latter are more effective and efficient. For diffuse benefits like water quality and habitat, performance standards are difficult to measure; for example, monitoring run-off from individual farms is particularly challenging. However, if programs operated at larger scales–for example, focusing conservation programs on collectives of farms in larger watersheds–it would be possible to monitor performance in the streams and rivers leaving those watersheds.

When we began the integrated assessment on Gulf hypoxia, a false choice was presented to us: "What do you want – corn or shrimp?" It was posed in at least partial jest, but it is another way of suggesting that productive agriculture and a safe, healthy environment cannot co-exist. Clearly they can: farmers will protect their environment as long as their livelihoods are not put at risk. Because their income will most likely continue to be determined more by policy than markets, shaping farm and energy policies appropriately can make enough corn shrimp chowder for us all.

Views expressed are those of the author. RFF does not take institutional positions on legislative or policy questions.