By Erica Gies
I recently traveled to California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions the world has ever seen, and the source of much of the food that you and I eat.
Unfortunately this bounty comes at a high cost to the people who grow and harvest our food – a cost that may impact many more of us soon. The problem is groundwater pollution. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff from irrigated fields, and animal waste from dairy farms and concentrated animal-feeding operations can poison drinking water.
I visited the town of Seville, which farm workers have called home for four generations. About 500 people live there now, and most adults still work in the fields. In 2008 the town’s only drinking water source tested positive for nitrates.
Nitrates are a byproduct of the nitrogen fertilizers that help American farmers bring in bumper crops. But when those crops can’t absorb all the fertilizer applied, the excess flows into groundwater via irrigation runoff. Nitrate-contaminated drinking water can poison pregnant women and babies. It inhibits a baby’s ability to absorb oxygen into its blood, which can cause it to suffocate and die. This condition is known as blue baby syndrome. Nitrate pollution has also been linked to cancer and to spleen and kidney disease.
Seville’s water quality problem is common to farming communities countrywide. More than 1.3 million people in California’s Central Valley can’t drink their tap water because of nitrate pollution, according to the Pacific Institute, a research group. Across the nation, 22 percent of wells in agricultural areas contain nitrate levels in excess of federal limits.
Nitrates aren’t the only agricultural contaminants infiltrating U.S. groundwater. Chemical pesticides and herbicides contain persistent organic pollutants, and once they contaminate drinking water they can cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities.
Concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) and other U.S. animal operations add further to the water pollution load. They produce 133 million tons of excrement annually – thirteen times the amount of human waste. But unlike human waste, animal waste isn’t treated at sewage plants. Instead, a noxious mix of feces, urine, antibiotics, pesticides, pathogens, hormones, and carcass parts are stored in huge open pits called lagoons, which can easily leak into groundwater or be washed into streams by storms.
So why has our food production system become so toxic? Partly because it can: the federal Clean Water Act has exempted agriculture from regulation since its passage in 1972. Think about that: one of the nation’s largest water pollution sources is utterly unregulated. That needs to change.
A place to start is to limit crop monocultures – hundreds of thousands of acres planted with a single fruit or vegetable species. Monocultures may be easy to grow and harvest, but they attract voracious insect pests, causing industrial farmers to apply more and more pesticides to kill them, in turn requiring more and more fertilizers to coax life from sickened soils. This is a veritable arms race of mutually assured destruction.
One solution is mixed crop farming, a technique now commonly used by organic farmers. Mixed cropping – which is effective for both food and livestock cultivation – works because the diverse mix of plant species limits any one pest’s success.
Using less fertilizer is also important, although even with perfect application, plants still fail to absorb some 50 percent of fertilizers, according to Dr. Deanna Osmond at the Department of Soil Science at North Carolina State University.
Unplanted land buffers along water bodies can help to absorb and break down excess nitrogen and other pollutants before they reach the water. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program pays farmers to retire cropland along rivers, restoring natural buffer zones. But acreage enrolled in this program is in decline. We need to reverse that trend.
Ultimately we must make systemic changes in the way we grow our food. The current system is clearly not sustainable in the long run, and tainted groundwater is just one indicator of impending failure.
Like so many environmental problems, industrial farming’s groundwater pollution has first impacted poor people – in this case, rural farm workers who earn an annual income of about $13,000 per family and cannot afford bottled water to keep their loved ones healthy.
But agricultural pollution likely won’t stay on the farm. One-third of municipal water comes from groundwater, and geologically, groundwater and surface water are linked. So it may be only a matter of time until the rest of us must deal with contaminated water.
Don’t get me wrong: I love food. But I don’t believe we need to irrevocably pollute our drinking water to grow it.
Erica Gies is a freelance reporter whose work has been published by the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Wired News, Grist, and E/The Environmental Magazine. © BRP 2010.
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