Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Conservation farming practices could help reduce the Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zone' that harms marine life and fishing

Agriculture's use of fertilizers without run-off prevention means chemicals along with nitrogen and phosphorus flow down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. (Adobe Stock photo)

When Midwestern farming states steer around conservation practices and use more synthetic fertilizer and manure, their crops' run-off flows into the Mississippi River and contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's 'dead zone,' reports Erin Jordan of The Gazette, which serves Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "There are thousands of U.S. farmers not growing cover crops or using other conservation practices shown to reduce runoff. . . thwarting plans to slash nitrogen and phosphorus washing down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients threaten wildlife and fishing industries." Encouraging or requiring farmers to use more conservation practices could change this trend.

What is the dead zone and why should farmers care? The zone is produced by chemicals and element run-offs of nitrogen and phosphorus that flow down the Mississippi and into the gulf. Once in the gulf, "these nutrients are required for plant and crop growth, trigger algae blooms that choke off oxygen in water and make it difficult, if not impossible, for marine life to survive," reports The Nature Conservancy. "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the dead zone costs U.S. seafood and tourism industries $82 million a year. The impact could be devastating to the gulf’s seafood industry."

Originally, the United States pegged 2025 as the year for nitrogen and phosphorus flows into the gulf to be reduced by 20%. But the country is far from reaching this goal. 

Despite government subsidies for conservation projects, "many farmers just don’t want to risk reducing their short-term yields — money they use to feed their families and pay down debt," Jordan reports. "While the Midwest has seen boosts in farming practices that reduce runoff, there’s also been an increase in practices that make the problem worse."

Some states are reconsidering "the strategy of paying farmers to implement voluntary practices to reduce nutrient loss," Jordan writes, including some lawmakers in Minnesota who "pushed for a 40-cent-per-ton fertilizer tax that would raise an estimated $1.2 million a year to be used to help southeast Minnesota residents whose drinking water wells are contaminated with nitrate, which has been linked to some forms of cancer."

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