At the crack of dawn, the farmer of the 21st century wakes up and prepares for the work ahead of him. Today, unlike other days, is especially important: perhaps it’s time for another periodic spraying of pesticides or laying of fertilizer. Maybe it’s time to check the irrigation pipes to the lagoon.
Whatever it may be, all three tasks have something in common: they lead to chemicals and toxins leaching into the water supply, which is then taken down river to the Gulf of Mexico. Slowly, they exacerbate an already terrible environmental situation: increased water pollution and hypoxia, or oxygen starved waters.
A Deadly Trifecta
Pesticides: Pesticides must be sprayed multiple times a year in order to chemically manage whatever may be determined a “pest” – perhaps a certain weed, insect, or fungus. Literally, millions of tons are sprayed over our crops a year, much of it hitting everything but the plants targeted due to the surface area of plants, wind, and poorly calibrated machinery.
Fertilizers: Fertilizers are the next challenge that face the Gulf, its ecosystems, and the life within. With more corn than even being grown for ethanol fuel, millions of pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer is seeping into ground water and soil, and eventually running off to the Mississippi River. As we’ll see later, nitrogen is key to the problem (and that addressing nitrogen as the issue is key to the solution).
Animal Waste: Finally, animal waste is also a major problem. With “lagoons,” a term used for the cesspools of animal waste at farms for such animals as the pig, there is a constant threat of leaking or spreading of waste by storms. Although the nitrates in animal waste account for roughly 15 percent of the nitrogen influx at the gulf, they still spread chemicals, toxins, and throughout the waterways and can contaminate fresh water supplies.
Over the year, each of the above – the pesticides, fertilizers, and leeching waste – slowly make their way to the Mississippi River, or other rivers that flow into the Mississippi, from their respective sources. The massive fields, the empires of dairy and animal farming, the systematic spraying and enhancing of all things contribute to a trail of toxic soup. Along the way, they degrade soil, ravish ecosystems, and threaten human health and safety.
However, the worse place is the final destination: the Gulf of Mexico.
Choking the Gulf
All the chemicals, nitrates, and waste ends up in one place: the Gulf of Mexico. Every years, millions of tons of contaminated water rush into the Gulf and the natural ecosystems that exist there. From aerial views, one can literally see the stark contrast of color: sediment (and nitrate) laden water coming into the blue of the ocean. The picture above shows the two forces clash.
And despite natural runoff being beneficial to the Gulf, the runoff industrial agriculture produces is something different. Nitrates that accumulate from across the Midwest (picture left) have an extremely adverse effect in the Gulf: hypoxia, or the starving of oxygen.
Nitrates feed life in the water just as they do on land. Each year, huge blooms of algae are spawned. As these grow, they suffocate the waters – literally depleting the water of oxygen. Soon, oxygen dependent ocean-life die off, including fish, crabs, and plankton. Crops contribute the most, especially corn and soybean, but animals waste contributes as well. Pesticides “toxify” the environment along the way, as well as the Gulf itself.
Looking for a Solution
Currently, the EPA has yet to mandate any formal regulation, and while some states have taken initiative, there is little serious focus on runoff and the Gulf specifically.
Three areas must be addressed: 1) the release of these nitrates and toxins, 2) the persistence of runoff, and 3) the effect it has on the environment. First, farms must begin to use less and less pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Not only does organic farming (done with intensive organic methods) yield equal or greater crops, but it does so without the use of synthetic chemicals.
Second, the farms that remain on the current system must work are irrigating and recapturing their waste. Just as a driver cannot throw his trash our the window, a farmer must not be able to pump their waste downstream.
Finally, work must be done to rehabilitate and protect the Gulf. The dead zone, which is now the size of New Jersey and looking to grow with this last season of intense storms, must be minimized and addressed. Not only does the life of the Gulf depend on it, but the lives of coastal resident do as well.