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Issue Profile


Agriculture assesses policies related to the effects of intensive agriculture, specifically farm subsidies and pesticide regulation.

What it measures: There are two indicators in this category. Agricultural Subsidies is a proxy measure for the degree of environmental pressure exerted by subsidizing agricultural inputs. Pesticide Regulation assesses the status of countries’ legislation regarding the use of chemicals listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Pesticide Regulation also scores the degree to which these countries have followed through on limiting or outlawing these chemicals.

Why we include it: According to a report by the OECD, public subsidies for agricultural protection and agrochemical inputs exacerbate environmental pressures through the intensification of chemical use, the expansion of farmland into sensitive areas, and the overexploitation of resources like water and soil nutrients. Pesticides are a significant source of pollution in the environment. They kill beneficial insects, pollinators, and fauna, and human exposure to pesticides has been linked to increased rates of neurological and reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and cancer.1

Where the data come from: The World Bank provides a database of Nominal Rate of Assistance, which is defined as “the percentage by which government policies have raised gross returns to farmers above what they would be without the government’s intervention […].”2

The Pesticide Regulation indicator scores countries' efforts toward banning the 'dirty dozen' POPs in the Stockholm Convention. The pesticides included in this indicator are the ‘dirty dozen’ POPs. A few notorious POPs include DDT, which are known to be extremely toxic and harmful to human and wildlife health and ecosystems at large.3

Both are proxy measures for on-the-ground performance, and, as such, receive relatively lower weight than other indicators and issues.

What the targets are: 0% for Agricultural Subsidies; 25 for Pesticide Regulation. For more information, click here

Description: Industrial agricultural activity has a direct and profound impact on the environment. At the local and landscape scales, its influences coincide with many major environmental concerns: soil quality, water quality and availability, air quality, carbon pollution and climate change, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and biodiversity loss.4,5 Even fisheries can be affected, as evidenced by dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, both of which were largely caused by fertilizer runoff.

In the 2014 EPI, two indicators comprise the Agriculture category. Combined, these indicators evaluate countries on actions they have taken to reduce the harmful effects of inputs related to intensive agriculture. Unfortunately, neither indicator in this category is a direct measurement of agricultural environmental performance. Instead, they are both proxies related to policy intent. The indicators assess policy performance regarding practices that adversely affect ecosystems. Research has shown that agro-subsidies and the relative strength of regulations on pesticides correlate strongly to the environmental impacts of agricultural activities.6

Agricultural Subsidies

Agricultural subsidies, which are generally adopted only by countries that are wealthy enough to afford them, promote the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The relationship is pretty simple: with subsidization, the more intensive agriculture tends to become, which can lead to heavier environmental footprints.7 While it historically has been the case that only wealthy countries have been able to subsidize agricultural products, many developing countries are following suit – a move that is already proving to have negative environmental externalities. Since the 2001 Doha round talks of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the developing countries that voiced the most opposition to agricultural subsidies in the United States and the European Union – primarily China, Brazil, India, Russia, and Indonesia – have grown their own agricultural subsidies the fastest.

Nowhere are the relationships between subsidies and ecosystems more apparent than the United States, where agricultural subsidies have promoted industrial-scale, commodity crop production. Without huge inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, the ecologically unsustainable practices of industrial agriculture would not occur. American subsidies foster large-scale, intensive farming. Increased soil erosion and massive runoff of animal waste and unutilized chemicals have been the general result.

The Mississippi River watershed is a glaring example of the widespread and direct impact that heavy inputs have upon landscapes. Along with public health and localized ecological effects, a large area of hypoxic waters has plagued the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem and fishing economy. Similar “dead zones” exist near the coasts of other countries with heavy subsidies, including China, India, and in the Baltic Sea, where much of the runoff flows from the subsidy-heavy Scandinavian countries, Russia, and Poland.8

Input subsidies also distort markets, favoring farmers in countries that can afford them over those in poorer countries. Worldwide, this has resulted in a global shift toward commodity crops over traditional techniques that have been sustained for generations without many inputs. The agricultural subsidies indicator is responsive to this economic inequity. Countries in which agriculture comprises a low proportion of their gross domestic product are given a pass. It is assumed that the impacts of these countries’ subsidies—in the rare cases they even exist— are negligible compared to those of economic powerhouses.

In many cases, the potential social benefits of subsidies in poorer nations can outweigh ecological impacts. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the increased yields that can only be produced with the use of some inputs are a necessary factor for future food security. As the capacity for conservation agriculture practices— like increased tillage, crop rotation, and intercropping with trees—expands throughout the developing world, the careful use of inputs can help produce those greater yields while also protecting ecosystems.

Such combined practices have already shown great success in Malawi, where in the past, monocropping of maize has led to intense soil degradation. After a poor season devastated the food supply in 2005, input subsidies to small-holder farmers were instituted, encouraging fertilizer use. The very next year farmers produced a huge surplus and were able to export to surrounding countries.9 The success of that year has led to an explosion of public programs, including many that promote conservation agriculture practices. Early research is showing that in those projects, yield is further increased, even up to 40 percent.10

Still, the Agricultural Subsidies indicator is not ideal. It is not capable of differentiating between subsidies that encourage sustainable practices. It is too coarse to give useful distinctions between countries with developing economies. More than 90 countries, all with very different agricultural profiles, occupy the first ranking with the same exact score, and the rankings cannot be effectively read as a measure of environmental quality, policy intent, or the impacts of farming upon the land. Norway comes out as a low performer because the typical Norwegian farmer receives most of his or her income through subsidies. But it would be difficult to argue that farming impacts there were that much worse than those in the United States, which comes out as a high performer among ranked countries. For this reason, this indicator is merely a proxy, and not an ideal one. Recognizing these shortcomings, the Agricultural Subsidies indicator is down-weighted so that it has a lower impact on the overall EPI score. It is a top priority to completely overhaul agricultural indicators for future EPIs.

Pesticide Regulation

Concerns over POPs are related to their mobility, toxicity, and ability to remain in water and soil for a long time. Many of the first 12 chemicals regulated under Stockholm—known as the “dirty dozen”— travel through waterways far from farms, affecting downstream populations and ecosystems. Some, like PCBs, DDT, and dioxins have received a lot of notoriety over the years. Others, including heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, and endrin, still remain obscure to the public, despite their comparable danger.

This indicator is a measurement of countries’ performance in regard to the usage of POPs, as it takes into account not only the signing of the Stockholm Convention, but also the ratification of it. The criteria for the adoption status include the year of signature and/or ratification of the Stockholm Convention for each country. But, the indicator goes further than that, scoring whether countries have taken steps to ban or restrict the dirty dozen and penalizing those who have not.

Over 180 countries have ratified the Stockholm Convention and made commitments to address POPs. For example, Eritrea, a country where up to 80 percent of the population is employed in agriculture,11 is revitalizing its agriculture to enhance food security and provide jobs as it recovers from two decades of war. After signing the Stockholm Convention in 2005, Eritrea’s Ministry of Agriculture included POPs in a list of banned pesticides. Of all the pesticides included in the Convention— including the most recent ten additions in 2009 and 2011 (see Amendments to the Stockholm Convention)— only DDT and endosulfan are used in the country, and only under heavy restriction. 

Since the implementation of the Stockholm Convention in 2001, many agriculture-driven countries have worked to understand the harmful effects of some POPs and establish legal frameworks to meet obligations to better manage them. These countries have set important precedents. The Global Environmental Trust Fund facilitated implementation in Eritrea, providing over US$340,000 to strengthen the nation’s capacity and capability to prepare their National Implementation Plan on POPs. National Implementation Plans (NIPs) are essential elements for assessing policy and management strategies and identifying priority activities to meet the requirements of the Stockholm Convention. While ideally the POPs indicator would use the National Reports to score implementation of policies to restrict or ban POPs, many countries have not submitted these reports. As countries submit updates to their NIPs and National Reports, including actions on newly listed POPs, future EPIs will continue to track actions countries take to ban or restrict chemicals listed in the Convention.

→ Which of the 'Dirty Dozen' does your country ban? See our scorecard here.

Unfortunately, neither indicator in this category is a direct measurement of agricultural environmental performance. Instead, they are both proxies related to policy intent. Globally comparable measures to assess agricultural sustainability or impacts simply do not exist. Measures of soil quality and erosion, agricultural water-use intensity, and desertification are all important issues related to agricultural sustainability. While there are a few efforts to develop comparable measures for these concerns (see Toward Improved Indicators of Agricultural Sustainability – the OECD Agri-Environmental Indicators), they are limited in scope and scale. International agreements such as the Stockholm Convention have future plans to provide more country-level data on POPs (see International Data Collection on POPs Emissions).

Data permitting, future EPIs will most likely see the Agricultural Subsidies indicator replaced by something more policy-relevant and reflective of current research. We hope to follow the lead of the scientific community, which has begun to shift its attention toward landscape-scale assessments of agriculture and its impacts. Taking a landscape perspective better corresponds to relevant conditions of geography, climate, biodiversity, and governance than viewing farms as separate from non-working lands or assessing agriculture at national or regional scales.12 Improved management and planning are the intended goals of agricultural indicators.

1 Alavanja, M. C. R., Hoppin, J. A., and Kamel, F. (2004) Health effects of chronic pesticide exposure: Cancer and Neurotoxicity. Annual Review of Public Health 25:155-97.

2 Anderson, K. (2009) Distorted agricultural incentives and economic development: Asia's experience. The World Economy32:351-384.

3 Jones, K. C. and de Voogt, P. (1999) Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): state of the science. Environmental Pollution 100:209-221.

4 Tilman, D, Cassman, K. G., Matson, P. A., et. al. (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418:671-677.

5 Aneja, V. P., Schlesinger, W. H., and Erisman, J. W. (2009) Effects of agriculture upon the air quality and climate: research, policy, and regulations. Environmental Science & Technology 43:4234-4240.

6 Lingard, J. (2002) Agricultural Subsidies and Environmental change. In Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, I. Douglas (ed.). John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., New Jersey, United States.

7 Matson, P., Parton, W. J., Power, A. G., et al. (1997) Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science 277:504-509.

8 Scherr S. and J McNeely. (2008) Biodiversity conservation and agricultural sustainability: towards a new paradigm of ‘ecoagriculture’ landscapes. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B 363:477-494.

9 Denning G, Kabambe, P., Sanchez, P., et. al. (2013) Input subsidies to improve smallholder maize productivity in Malawi: Toward an African Green Revolution. Plos Biology 7:e1000023.

10 Thierfelder C, Chisui, J. L., Gama, M.,  et. al. (2013) Maize-based conservation agriculture systems in Malawi: long-term trends in productivity. Field Crops Research 142:47-57.

11 Department of Environment of the Ministry of Land, Water and Environment, The State of Eritrea. (2012) National implementation plan for the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants. Asmara, Eritrea.

12 Scherr S. and J McNeely. (2008) Biodiversity conservation and agricultural sustainability: towards a new paradigm of ‘ecoagriculture’ landscapes. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B 363:477-494.

Data Explorer

The EPI Data Explorer allows users to dynamically investigate global data: Compare environmental performance with GDP, population, land area, or other variables; create a chart that highlights all 178 ranked countries, only those in a specific region, or a custom-defined group. There's a lot more to the data than rankings, so dive in.


The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is constructed through the calculation and aggregation of 20 indicators reflecting national-level environmental data. These indicators are combined into nine issue categories, each of which fit under one of two overarching objectives. Click on "Learn More" to explore the complete methods.