c o m m e n t a r
Is the United States a Pollution Haven?
The U.S. has won the gold medal in the corn trade. But the prize looks tarnished when weighed against the impacts on the U.S. environment and biodiversity south of the border.
by Frank Ackerman | March 1, 2002
Free trade, according to its critics, runs the risk of creating pollution
havens-countries where lax environmental standards allow dirty industries
to expand. Poor countries are the usual suspects; perhaps poverty drives
them to desperate strategies, such as specializing in the most polluting
But could the United States be a pollution haven?
The question arises from a look at agriculture under NAFTA, particularly
the trade in corn. In narrow economic terms, the United States is winning
in the market for corn. Exports to Mexico have doubled since NAFTA’s first
year, 1994, to more than five million tons annually. Cheap U.S. corn is
undermining traditional production in Mexico; prices there have dropped
27% in just a few years, and a quarter of the corn consumed in Mexico
is now made in the United States. But in environmental terms, the U.S.
victory comes at a great cost. Corn production is moving from Mexico,
where it was more sustainable, to the United States, where it involves
serious environmental impacts.
You won’t hear this, or any other discouraging words, from the advocates
of trade promotion authority (fast track) and the Free Trade Area of the
Americas, when the issues return to the political agenda in the coming
In the official story, ever-freer trade creates rising economic tides
that will lift all boats. And since richer people pay more attention to
pollution, everyone’s environment will get cleaner, too. It’s supposed
to be a win-win story all around.
In reality, free trade creates losers as well as winners within each
country. U.S. industrial workers and Mexican peasant farmers are economically
worse off as a result of NAFTA. When it comes to the environment, free
trade can lead to lose-lose outcomes, as in the case of corn.
How bad could it be for the United States to win the corn war? Mainstream
commentary on the outcome ranges from calmly positive to positively gloating.
Yet there are ominous environmental costs to the US style of growing corn.
The growing sales to Mexico bring more of these costs to the Corn Belt
and the nation.
Corn is a highly chemical-intensive crop, using significantly more chemicals
per acre than wheat or soybeans, the other two leading field crops. Runoff
of excess nitrogen fertilizer is a major cause of water pollution, leading
to the huge "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico around the mouth
of the Mississippi River. Intensive application of toxic herbicides and
insecticides threatens the health of farm workers, farming communities,
and consumers. Genetically modified corn, which now accounts for about
one-fifth of U.S. production, poses unknown long-term risks to consumers
and to ecosystems.
Additional problems result from growing corn in very dry areas where
irrigation is required. The traditional Corn Belt states, such as Iowa,
Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana, have ample rainfall and do not need
irrigation. However, 15% of U.S. corn acreage is now irrigated almost
all of it in Nebraska, Kansas, the Texas panhandle, and eastern Colorado.
These areas are all drawing water from the Ogallala aquifer, a gigantic
underground reservoir that contains as much fresh water as Lake Huron.
Water is being taken out of the aquifer, for irrigation and other uses,
much faster than the aquifer naturally refills. If present rates of overuse
continue, the Ogallala aquifer will be drained down to unusable levels
within a few decades, causing a crisis for the huge areas of the plains
states that depend on it for water supplies. Government subsidies, in
years past, helped farmers buy the equipment needed to pump water out
of the Ogallala, contributing to the impending crisis.
Moreover, the corn borer, the leading insect pest that likes to eat corn
plants, flourishes best in dry climates. Thus the "irrigation states,"
particularly Texas and Colorado, are the hardest hit by corn borers. Corn
growers in dry states have the greatest need for insecticides; they also
have the greatest motivation to use genetically modified corn, which is
designed to repel corn borers.
Corn prices are low in the United States and overall sales are not growing,
suggesting that the country now produces a surplus of corn. Incentives
to produce less, not more, would be environmentally beneficial, especially
if the reductions could be concentrated in the irrigated areas. But "success"
under NAFTA pushes in the opposite direction.
Sales to Mexico are particularly important to the United States because
many countries are refusing to accept genetically modified corn. Europe
no longer imports U.S. corn for this reason, and Japan and several East
Asian countries may follow suit. Mexico prohibits the growing of genetically
modified corn, but still allows it to be imported; it is one of the largest
remaining markets where U.S. exports are not challenged on this issue.
Despite Mexico’s ban, genetically modified corn was recently found growing
in a remote rural area of Oaxaca. As the ancestral home of corn, Mexico
possesses a unique and irreplaceable genetic diversity. Although the extent
of the problem is still uncertain, the unplanned and uncontrolled spread
of artificially engineered plants from the United States could potentially
contaminate Mexico’s numerous naturally occurring corn varieties.
An even greater threat is the economic impact of cheap U.S. imports on
peasant farmers and rural communities. Traditional farming practices,
evolved over thousands of years, use combinations of different natural
varieties of corn carefully matched to local conditions. Lose these traditions,
and we will lose a living reservoir of biodiversity in the country of
origin of one of the world’s most important food grains.
The United States has won the gold medal in the corn trade. But the prize
looks tarnished when viewed through the lens of the U.S. environment,
or of Mexico’s biodiversity. Pollution havens don’t always have to be
Frank Ackerman is Director of Research and Policy at the Global Development
and Environment Institute at Tufts University.
Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
Frank Ackerman "Is the United States a Pollution Haven?," Americas
Program Commentary (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center,
March 1, 2002).