Reporting project examines the scandal of US farm pollution

By Keith Schneider

There’s no way to describe farm-related nutrient pollution other than what it is – a national scandal.

A tiny minority of Americans, half of one percent, is grossly fouling the waters for tens of millions of others. Corn Belt crop farmers, and livestock and poultry producers – the heart of the rich and powerful $618 billion American farm sector – have virtually unlimited opportunities within state and federal law to pollute at will.

Crop producers, unregulated under the Clean Water Act, seek maximum production with no restriction on how much fertilizer they apply. Livestock and poultry producers, barely covered by the clean water law, treat farm fields as waste disposal zones for an ocean of untreated liquid manure and a mountain range of solid manure and poultry litter ripe with E.coli and other hazardous microorganisms. Polluting farm production practices, mostly overlooked by state environment departments, are defended by trade associations with lobbying offices in state capitals and allies from both parties in state legislatures and in Congress.

Since January I’ve been reporting the causes, consequences, and solutions to the farm sector’s assault on American waters with financial support from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which also helped me secure a second grant from The Fund For Investigative Journalism. See the latest story here.

The project focuses on nitrate pollution in the Corn Belt and builds on expertise I gained reporting in 2022 for Circle of Blue on phosphorus pollution in Michigan and the Great Lakes states. Early reports from this year’s project have already been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Lede, Circle of Blue, Minnpost, Investigate Midwest, Detroit Now, Michigan Radio, and my ModeShift blog.

To some extent, the tide of toxic nitrogen and phosphorus discharges from crop land and livestock operations is a well-recognized story not only in media, but also in government. Addressing it has resulted in an unsteady platform of responses over the last three decades held up by two of three legs.

The first is the considerable investment by states and the federal government in science. Billions of dollars have been spent on research and nutrient monitoring. America knows with great clarity the sources of nutrient contamination and the environmental, health, and economic damage it causes.