Your Food Choices Affect Ocean Health

Posted by: Sam Meehan

For most Americans, our massive agricultural sector ensures that food is relatively inexpensive, readily available, and shortages are unheard of.  Unfortunately, this abundance now comes at a very high cost to the health of our oceans. Every day, thousands of gallons of farm waste, like runoff herbicides, pesticides, and excess fertilizer, end up in coastal waters, profoundly upsetting these delicately balanced ecosystems. Nitrogen, a key ingredient in fertilizer, is particularly detrimental.

According to the journal Bioscience, over half a million tons of nitrogen washes away from America’s farms and end up in our oceans. Incredibly, nearly fifty percent of the nitrogen applied to crops in the United States is surplus to the needs of the plants. The Rodale Institute estimates that this excess nitrogen fertilizer costs farmers an estimated $270 million dollars per year.  The addition of excess nitrogen to an ecosystem can lead to a phenomenon called hypoxia, in which the dissolved oxygen saturation is too low to sustain much life. Faster-moving animals such as fish can navigate away from these areas, but less mobile creatures such as clams and urchins, cannot escape and die en masse.

The result is a “dead zone,” an empty column of water essentially devoid of any life. The dead zone problem is steadily growing, as well. says that the number of global dead zones has doubled every decade since 1960, and that our oceans now feature 400 of these ecological disaster areas. Because the Mississippi River, a waterway that flows through many of our most productive farming states, empties into it, the Gulf of Mexico is particularly at risk to suffer from hypoxia and subsequent dead zones. Recently, one dead zone was measured at 20,000 square kilometers. While the situation is dire, there are steps we can all take to dial back the dead zone disaster.

Buying organic products (or growing your own fruits and vegetables) is one such simple step. Organic methods do not rely on synthetic herbicides or pesticides (like atrazine, the most common herbicide used in American agriculture, which has been banned in the EU for years and has been shown to disrupt reproduction in certain plants and animals), and they drastically reduce the amount of nutrients that run off into waterways. Increased consumer demand for organic products, along with the 2008 Farm Bill being the friendliest ever to organic farmers, shows that we can be cautiously optimistic about restoring life to these unfortunate dead zones.

For lots of useful information on organic agriculture, visit the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s website at:
And the Rodale Institute’s website at:

Date Posted: August 11, 2011 @ 9:35 am Comments Off


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