Ocean Lover? Me too. Interested in how you can impact coastal ocean health in other ways besides trash pickups? Look no further than your weekly grocery run.
You probably already know that we’ve been going after the highly visible, low-hanging fruit of marine conservation for some time. You know the drill: don’t catch dolphins with the tuna! Quit it with the plastic! Stop dumping arsenic in there! Those things are worth our attention, and they’ve had it for some time. But what about the less visible, but equally impactful, harms we inflict upon our coastal oceans?
You Are What You Eat, and So is the Ocean
Plain and simple, crops throughout our nation’s farmland get sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. That kills off pests, but also kills off the soil ecosystem in the process. Plants living in this soil are pest-free, but also find themselves in a substrate completely lacking in nutrition. Heavy fertilizer use compensates for the lack of those healthy soils.
Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, when applied, are mostly shed from the soil into the local watershed. Only a small amount is actually absorbed by plant roots. This agricultural runoff accumulates with the runoff from other farms as watersheds empty into rivers, estuaries, and eventually, oceans. Fertilizer is the one I really want to home in on today.
What, specifically, is bad about fertilizer ending up in our coastal waters?
I realize you probably get it – those things aren’t good. But one of the main goals of A New Lens is to educate and go one layer deeper in unpacking issues in science and sustainability. Often, the easiest way to do that is to act like a 2-year old and say, “Yeah, right, but why?” Doing that over and over lands me in lots of interesting places.
Fertilizers are nitrogen-rich, which in turn make coastal waters more nitrogen-rich than they’re typically supposed to be. Algae thrive on the nitrogen – resulting in algae blooms, the likes of which I’m sure you’ve seen one before in a local lake or stream.
How Bad Are We Talking?
Imagine that these blooms erupt at the mouth of large river deltas, where the nitrogen-rich river waters meet the sea. Now picture an algae bloom the size of New Jersey (and just as smelly. Sorry Jersey. But not really.). When an algae bloom of that size eventually dies, those dead algae sink to the ocean floor. Microbes consume them, and this is where things get hairy. Those microbes use up loads of oxygen in the process of consuming those algae. Think of it as the microbial equivalent of VIP access to an all-you-can-eat NY pizza buffet (my fantasy).
Anyways, when that happens, there’s no oxygen left for everything else that needs it: fish, corals, shrimp, crabs, basically everything that lives in the water. Scientists call these “hypoxic events,” which we colloquially (and apocalyptically) call “dead zones.” That’s because in the absence oxygen, mobile creatures like fish flee the scene and immobile creatures perish. What’s left behind? Not much.
“Root” Cause Analysis
The massive, state-sized dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chespeake Bay cost commercial and recreational fisheries hundreds of millions of dollars per year. To sustain vital coastal ecosystems, this is a problem we absolutely have to solve.
Unfortunately, a lot of money gets spent trying to solve the symptom. For example, bioengineering firms are trying to overexpress genes within plants to make their roots absorb nitrogen more efficiently. In turn, farmers need less nitrogen. But, it forces farms into purchasing and planting expensive, genetically engineered commodity crops.
Others are looking at the structure of the nitrogen used in fertilizers and trying to figure out how to make it “stickier,” so that it is more likely to remain in the soil. This, again, is problematic.
The bottom line is that the root cause of fertilizer use is unhealthy soil. We need fertilizer for that reason and that reason alone: our plants aren’t getting their nutrition from the soil. They’re not getting nutrition from the soil because the soil is dead – dead from pesticides, dead from herbicides, and sapped of nutrients from having the same plants serially planted over and over. Without some rotation of other, complementary plants, there is never an opportunity for nutrients to be restored to the soil web.
Prevention is always less expensive in the long run, but typically entails more upfront cost – to the farmer and to the consumer. More variety and crop rotation help regenerate soil, but that also requires that we lay off the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Farms can mitigate or eliminate their need for pesticides and other junk by prioritizing diversity and cover crops over yields. That’s tough work, and so those kinds of farms tend to (1) be smaller, and (2) they can’t compete with the farms playing with commodity crops and selling at commodity prices to national grocery chains. As consumers, it is our responsibility to meet them in the middle and reward them for these efforts.
How to Support Regenerative, Restorative Agriculture
Going to the grocery store, I’ll admit it’s hard to know where anything even comes from, let alone if they do things responsibly. Which is why I’m an advocate of reducing our dependence on grocery stores. They’re just not the best forum for supporting an informed food buyer.
Not everyone at the farmer’s market is doing things in a sustainable way, either. But your starting odds are better and you get to ask the dealer if the deck is stacked. So yeah, I might sound like a broken record, but small-scale farms whose stands are stacked to the gills with a cornucopia of variety are a better bet. As spring has sprung, we’ll talk in the coming days about some of the obstacles to shopping regularly at farmer’s markets, and some tips and tricks to overcome them.
I want to offer one more closing thought. The ways our food choices ripple forward through the environment and backwards through our food production system are understandably confusing. Information is more accessible than ever before, but the abundance of information out there can also be oversaturating. So if you’re still interested in the topic of our nation’s soil health, the recently released Patagonia film Unbroken Ground tackles this dynamic in a zippy 25 minutes. That’s a pretty minimal time commitment if you come out on the other side not wanting to take more steps in the right direction.
**As always, we very genuinely appreciate every one of you that takes the time to read these articles. If you find them to be valuable, let us know what else you’d like to hear about! Leave a comment, or join our email list at the bottom of the page to keep tabs on weekly posts and more. Thanks again for reading.