Reducing Dead Zone through Organic Practices

Karen Adler's picture

The concept of Organic Agriculture moves center stage in the global sustainability debate.
--One Earth, One Future: 2012 Consolidated Annual Report of the IFOAM (Integrated Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) Action Group.

map of the dead zoneDid you hear that the area in the Gulf of Mexico known as the dead zone is soon expected to reach the size of New Jersey?  Due to heavy spring flooding in the Midwest, with a lot more nitrogen-based fertilizer ending up in the Gulf, this year’s dead zone could be the biggest on record. And there are, unfortunately, many other areas in the U.S. and around the world with dead zones created by unsustainable practices.  Dead zone is a term commonly used to describe the results of hypoxia. This dramatic impact of chemical-based agriculture on biodiversity and the environment occurs when agricultural nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, leach into waterways and wash downstream, accumulating in the waters of an estuary or bay. The decomposition process depletes the oxygen. Marine life flees or dies when oxygen levels get too low for their survival. Bird and animal populations that feed on marine life also shrink as their food sources disappear.

Organic agricultural practices greatly reduce the conditions that create dead zones. Organic farmers do not use chemical fertilizers, the main culprit. Their sources of nutrients, including cover crops, compost, manure, and mineralized rock, are natural and less soluble. Organic practices lead to increased soil organic matter and healthy soil, which enables water to slowly infiltrate the ground, rather than moving along the surface, carrying soil and nutrients with it. Healthy soil structure also encourages plants to establish vibrant, erosion-resistant root systems.

As reported in OFRF’s landmark publication, Organic Farming for Health & Prosperity, a modeling study comparing nitrogen exports into Lake Michigan under different scenarios found organic farming to be the only land management scenario that would reduce, rather than increase, nitrogen loading into the water. It is indeed time for organic agriculture to take center stage, enabling the transformation of dead zones into living, breathing, thriving zones.

Organic Farming Research Foundation Organic Farming Research Foundation would like to take this opportunity to remember Iowa farmer, Dan Specht, who died last week in a tragic farm accident. Dan, who farmed near the banks of the Mississippi River, was an innovative pioneer in sustainable agriculture, nationally known for on-farm research related to rotational grazing, cover crops, and water quality, among other topics. We are recognizing Dan here in this post to share his work to improve water quality in the Mississippi River and beyond, described in Dead Zone Puzzle,an article published in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Thank you, Dan, for your many years of exemplary commitment to sustainable farming, public policy service, and contributions to the environment.


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