There’s a silent, serial killer on the loose and it drifts along streams and coastlines, gobbling up oxygen, suffocating and killing aquatic life. “Dead zones” are the consequential killers, borne from our agricultural systems.
Dead zones are basically areas of water with decreased oxygen levels, in which practically nothing, except bacteria can survive. Dead zones can fluctuate in size and move with the tides, but their presence is practically guaranteed in areas where excess nutrients from conventional agricultural operations enter waterways. Ever heard of the phrase “too much of a good thing”? Well, Dead Zones are a prime example of this…
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is, perhaps, the best known dead zone – in 2014, it spanned 5,052 square miles. This dead zone is found off the coast of Texas and Louisiana and is fed by the fertile flow of the Mississippi River. All of those farms in the Midwest, leak their excess nutrients into the Mississippi river, and as it empties out into the Atlantic, it causes a dead zone to peak during the summer months of the year, every year. Extra nitrogen and phosphorous in water, encourage algae growth, which results in algal blooms.
As the algae dies, bacteria begin to decompose the algae and much of the oxygen in the water gets used up in this process, causing oxygen levels to fall.
Some animals are able to sense the changes in oxygen levels and move away from a dead zone. Others can’t move or are unable to find better oxygen levels before they suffocate. As animals die, bacteria decompose their bodies too, and even more oxygen is eaten up in the process. It’s a vicious cycle.
Depending on the type of algae, the rapidly multiplying algae bloom itself can be toxic. If it’s a species that produces toxins, these toxins can sicken and kill shellfish, fish, turtles, birds, marine mammals, and any other animal in the region. Dead zones can and do occur naturally, but our farming practices have drastically tipped the scales though, causing this phenomenon to grow into a big, ugly monster.
So, where do all these extra nutrients come from?
Firstly, let’s consider the fact that a single cow can produce up to 70kg of manure per day. (Do you see where I’m going with this?) The EPA estimates that roughly 335 million tons of manure is produced by livestock in the United States each year. And if a farm doesn’t have a treatment system in place to handle that waste, the nutrients from all that manure can end up in ground water and flow into a river, lake or ocean. Secondly, an estimated 85 percent of soybean production worldwide goes into livestock feed. And an estimated 80 percent of U.S.-produced corn ends up as animal feed.
As you can guess, a lot of fertilizers go into the growing of these crops. In 2011, 22 million tons of fertilizers were applied to crops in the United States. Unfortunately, only about 50 percent of fertilizers are actually absorbed by the crops and the rest of it eventually ends up in our waterways.
Now here’s something to chew on: if there were less livestock to feed, there would be no starving people on this planet. Livestock consumes one third, of all cereal grains grown worldwide!!! The 1 billion tonnes of wheat, barley, oats & maize which are fed to livestock every year, could feed as many as 3.5 billion people. 1 in 7 people are undernourished. So, by eating less meat, we could cure world hunger and save our oceans!!!
Sounds like a no-brainer to me! I mean, waste not, want not, Right?
Please do not misinterpret me, I am not for one second suggesting that we should all become vegan. I am merely suggesting that we eat a little less meat, just to ease the pressure on our planet. In 2007, it was calculated that people in India consumed only 3.2kg of meat, per person, per year; compared to people in the U.S. who consumed 125kg of meat, per person, per year. There’s definitely room for improvement, which ultimately would benefit us all…