Dead Zones, Part 2

In our last blog, we started a discussion about dead zones. These are areas in coastal waters that can no longer support aquatic life because they lack oxygen, which has been absorbed through a process triggered by the massive runoff of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, first into streams and rivers, and finally into the ocean itself. Such fertilizers are used to aid the growth of crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans.

According to Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University, in the past 15 years the total fertilizer amount used has surpassed the total amount from the years prior to that combined, since its invention almost a century ago! Part of the reason is that we need ever-greater amounts of food crops to feed the ever-growing population of our planet. But, ironically, a large percentage of the corn and soybeans grown with the help of these fertilizers is not used to feed hungry people. Instead, it’s employed to feed the exploding numbers of cattle we raise to satisfy the exploding worldwide demand for beef. In a double irony, corn and soybeans aren’t even part of the natural diet for cattle (that would be grass)! Instead, these foods are used in giant commercial feedlots to fatten cattle for slaughter in the last few weeks of their lives.

Dead zones have had a direct and devastating effect on coastal fisheries around the world. The relatively recent transformation of fishing into an industrial activity employing huge factory ships has already been a heavy blow to what traditionally was a smaller-scale, family-run occupation. In fact, according to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2010, no less than 82% of all major world fisheries are either fully exploited, over-exploited or in recovery from over-exploitation. The addition of dead zones to this gloomy equation has served to virtually erase a basic food source in the coastal communities of poorer nations that only have smaller-scale fishing capabilities.

And this is just one aspect of the problem …

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.