When Fertility Leads To A Dead Zone

For the last century, Americans have been stuck in a simplistic mechanical model of prosperity: The more we produce, the more prosperous we become. One of the most profound refutations of that model is the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, a great area of the Gulf of Mexico, spreading from the delta of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, where no marine animals can live.

This dead zone is created by the great industrial agricultural push in America’s MidWest. For generations, farmers have been told by the government that they’ll be most successful if they fertilize their fields with fertilizers created, not through the natural decay of plant materials, but in factories far from the field. Those fertilizers then run off into streams that feed into rivers that feed into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the fertilizers create such an intense bloom of plant growth in the water that the decaying plant material creates a vast stretch of water in the Gulf of Mexico that is starved of oxygen, and kills any animal unlucky enough to swim into it.

The maps below show the results of a recent study by the US Geological Survey, tracing these fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphorus back to the states upstream where they enter the Mississippi River watershed.

The following states have only 31 percent of the area in the Mississippi River watershed, but they contribute 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that lead to the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone:

mississippi river state gulf dead zone

That study ought to have been done by the US Department of Agriculture, given that it’s agriculture that delivers so much of the pollution into the dead zone. People ask what good organic, sustainable farming does us. This new USGS study makes it clear. Organic, sustainable farming could spare us dead zones.

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