Gulf of Mexico Now Largest Dead Zone in the World, and Factory Farming Is to Blame

This article was originally published by Dr. Mercola

As reported by CBS Miami (above), nitrogen fertilizers and sewage sludge runoff from factory farms are responsible for creating an enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. As fertilizer runs off farms in agricultural states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and others, it enters the Mississippi River, leading to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water.

This, in turn, leads to the development of algal blooms, which alter the food chain and deplete oxygen, resulting in dead zones. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest recorded dead zone in the world,1 beginning at the Mississippi River delta and spanning more than 8,700 square miles — about the size of New Jersey.

Needless to say, the fishing industry is taking a big hit, each year getting worse than the last. The featured news report includes underwater footage that shows you just how bad the water quality has gotten.

Gulf of Mexico — Largest Dead Zone in the World

Nancy Rabalais, professor of oceanography at Louisiana State University, is an expert on dead zones. She has measured oxygen levels in the Gulf since 1985, and blames agricultural runoff entering the Mississippi River for this growing environmental disaster. Recent measurements reveal the area has only half the oxygen levels required to sustain basic life forms.

“The solution lies upstream in the watershed,” she says, “with agricultural management practices; a switch to crops that have deeper roots and don’t need so much fertilizer and are still just as profitable as corn.”

According to CBS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has created a task force to assess dead zones, and hope to reduce nutrient-rich agricultural runoff by 20 percent by 2025. Common sense will tell you that’s nowhere near enough. A study2 published last year revealed nitrogen builds up far below the soil surface, where it can continue to leach into groundwater for 35 years.

This means environmental concerns would persist for decades even if farmers were to stop using nitrogen fertilizers altogether. The researchers analyzed more than 2,000 soil samples from the Mississippi River Basin, finding nitrogen buildup at depths of 10 inches to 3.2 feet. According to the authors:

“[W]e show that the observed accumulation of soil organic [nitrogen] … in the [Mississippi River Basin] over a 30-year period … would lead to a biogeochemical lag time of 35 years for 99 percent of legacy [soil organic nitrogen], even with complete cessation of fertilizer application. By demonstrating that agricultural soils can act as a net [nitrogen] sink, the present work makes a critical contribution towards the closing of watershed [nitrogen] budgets.”

Drinking Water Threatened by Agricultural Pollution

Agricultural runoff threatens drinking water across the U.S. as well. As reported by Fern’s AG Insider:5

“Seven million Americans who live in small cities and towns have worrisome levels of nitrates in their drinking water — below the federal limit of 10 milligrams per liter, but high enough to be associated with cancer in some studies, said an Environmental Working Group official.

Craig Cox, head of EWG’s Midwest office, said 1,683 communities had nitrate levels above 5 milligrams per liter and, when plotted on a map, they ‘crazily lined up with intensive agriculture.’ Farm use of nitrogen fertilizer is regarded as a frequent source of nitrates in groundwater. Soils also shed nitrates naturally. Urban runoff and septic systems also are sources.”

Meat Industry Implicated in Creation of Gulf Dead Zone

According to Mighty Earth,6 an environmental group chaired by former Congressman Henry Waxman, a “highly industrialized and centralized factory farm system” — consisting of a fairly small number of individual corporations — are responsible for a majority of the water contamination and environmental destruction we’re currently facing. Tyson Foods, which produces chicken, beef and pork, was identified as one of the worst offenders. As reported by The Guardian:7

Tyson, which supplies the likes of McDonald’s and Walmart, slaughters 35 [million] chickens and 125,000 head of cattle every week, requiring five million acres of corn a year for feed, according to the report. This consumption resulted in Tyson generating 55 [million] tons of manure last year … with 104 [million] tons of pollutants dumped into waterways over the past decade.

The Mighty research found that the highest levels of nitrate contamination correlate with clusters of facilities operated by Tyson and Smithfield, another meat supplier …

The report urges Tyson and other firms to use their clout in the supply chain to ensure that grain producers such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland employ practices that reduce pollution flowing into waterways. These practices include not leaving soil uncovered by crops and being more efficient with fertilizers so plants are not doused in too many chemicals.”

October 2, the group launched its national #CleanItUpTyson campaign,8 calling for Tyson, the largest meat company in the U.S., to “clean up pollution from its supply chain that’s contaminating local drinking water and causing a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.” According to Mighty Earth:

The local campaigns are part of Mighty Earth’s national effort to hold the meat industry accountable for reducing its vast environmental impact, which is driving widespread water pollution, clearance of natural landscapes, high rates of soil erosion, and greenhouse gas emissions. Local communities from the Heartland to the Gulf are among those most affected by the meat industry’s impacts, and pay billions each year in clean-up costs.”

Factory Farming — The Ultimate Threat to Life on Earth

According to Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming and author of “Farmageddon” and “Dead Zone” — two books detailing the destructive impact of industrial agriculture — factory farming is a threat to all life on Earth.

Speaking at a recent Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, Lymbery said: “Every day there is a new confirmation of how destructive, inefficient, wasteful, cruel and unhealthy the industrial agriculture machine is. We need a total rethink of our food and farming systems before it’s too late.”9

As noted by The Guardian,10 a number of “alarming exposés” have been featured as of late, including “chicken factory staff in the U.K. changing crucial food safety information on chickens,” and an admission by the European commission last month that “eggs containing a harmful pesticide may have been on sale in as many as 16 countries.” And, of course, the Gulf of Mexico being earning the recent designation of having the largest dead zone ever recorded. According to Lymbery:

“We need to go beyond an isolated approach. Not just looking at the technical problems around welfare, not just looking at the technical issues around the environment, not just looking at food security in isolation, but putting all of these issues together, then we can see the real problem that lies at the heart of our food system — industrial agriculture.

Factory farming is shrouded in mythology. One of the myths is that it’s an efficient way of producing food when actually it is highly inefficient and wasteful. Another is that the protagonists will say that it can be good for the welfare of the animals. After all, if hens weren’t happy they wouldn’t lay eggs. The third myth is that factory farming saves space.

On the surface it looks plausible, because, by taking farm animals off the land and cramming them into cages and confinement you are putting an awful lot of animals into a small space. But what is overlooked in that equation is you are then having to dedicate vast acreages of relatively scarce arable land to growing the feed …

The UN has warned that if we continue as we are, the world’s soils will have effectively gone within 60 years. And then what? We shouldn’t look to the sea to bail us out because commercial fisheries are expected to be finished by 2048.”

Each Day’s Meal Can Help Bring Us Closer to the Tipping Point

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You can help steer the agricultural industry toward safer, more sustainable systems by supporting local farmers dedicated to regenerative farming practices. The Demeter mark, indicative of Biodynamic certification, is the new platinum standard for high-quality foods raised and grown in accordance to the strictest environmental parameters possible.

Biodynamic is essentially organic on steroids, far surpassing it in terms of its environmental impact. Unfortunately, Biodynamic certified foods are still scarce in the U.S., unless you happen to live near a certified farm.


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