During the spring, the Mississippi floods Midwestern farms and communities, flushing nitrogen and phosphorus from crop fertilizers and animal manure downstream. When those nutrients hit the Gulf, algae growth surges, then eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean and decomposes. Tiny bacterial microbes consume oxygen, depleting the ocean’s levels and causing hypoxia. The river water flowing in on the surface stops new oxygen from dissolving, creating the dead zone. Marine life must flee, or suffocate and die. Young fish and seafloor dwellers like clam, shrimp, and crab are usually the hardest hit, according to the EPA.
There are thousands of dead zones around the world; in the U.S., the EPA has documented 166, the major two in the Gulf and the Chesapeake Bay. Seven years ago, though agriculture industry and trade groups lobbied hard against the measure, the EPA set total maximum daily loads for pollutants in waters near the Chesapeake. The bay has since seen major improvements.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that nine states along the Mississippi — including Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana — contribute three-quarters of the nitrogen and phosphorous released. Corn and soybean crops are some of the largest sources of the nutrients, but a new report says the meat industry is also to blame. An organization called Mighty Earth mapped out meat companies like Arkansas-based Tyson and Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, illustrating that their farms in the states along the Mississippi were some of the largest sources of pollution from meat processors, grassland prairie fertilizers, and corn and soybean grain silos and plants. According to Mighty Earth’s report, Tyson slaughters 35 million chickens and 125,000 cattle every week and requires five million acres of corn a year for feed. Here’s an interactive map of their facilities along the Mississippi.
Scientists have long known the agriculture industry is the culprit, but heavy lobbying has prevented any real action from being taken. Every year, the dead zone is a problem, and every year, people on the Gulf Coast ask the EPA to do something about it. NOAA estimates that the Gulf dead zone costs seafood and tourism industries $82 million annually. As it grows, so does that price tag. That could be devastating for the Gulf seafood industry, which supplies 40 percent of the nation’s seafood. The Gulf’s fish and coasts are still suffering after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, so the growing dead zone adds to concerns over how stable the industry may be in the future.
One recent study suggests that if Midwestern farms rotated in a couple more crops with their corn and soybeans to use less fertilizer, runoff could be reduced by 60 percent. Building buffer zones that use wetlands or other strips of land, planting cover crops, changing land use, and filtering drainage could also be effective at preventing as much runoff. But some scientists say it could be up to two decades before the Gulf sees any improvement if some of these solutions are implemented. Estimates show it could cost $2.7 billion to stop the dead zone — and farmers or taxpayers would have to foot the bill.
The agriculture industry has always been incredibly influential, lobbying against any effort large or small that may impact farmers. They’re even stronger with the Trump administration. Farming and agriculture groups are the reason the Waters of the U.S. rule may be changed, even though it doesn’t affect them. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has built businesses on fertilizer sales and agriculture products, and many farmers are expecting him to keep their best interests in mind when deciding on regulations. Now, USDA leaders are instructing staff to use terms like “weather extremes” instead of “climate change,” which is a phrase lobbyists like the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation use.
With climate change, agriculture’s impact becomes more relevant. Communities along the Mississippi have seen an uptick in flooding and rain events in the last decade. Without substantial action, flooding and runoff will worsen, and the Gulf’s health will likely keep deteriorating. This is a story about policy, but the focus is on the wild, confusing facts about the dead zone. What’s more clear is that the agriculture industry is going to take great strides to keep it that way.
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