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Agriculture Is One of the Most Polluting and Dangerous Industries

Industrial ag supplies most of our food, yet its lack of regulation may be more of a threat than Wall Street's.
 
 
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The following is by Will Allen, author of The War on Bugs.

Taxpayers are demanding that government enforce existing regulations and create more stringent rules to limit the excess and greed in banking, insurance, housing, and on Wall Street. But, in the rush to regulate, we can't forget to oversee industrial agriculture. It is one of our most polluting and dangerous industries. Like the financial sectors, its practices have not been well regulated for the last thirty years. Let me run down a few of the major problems that have developed because of our poorly regulated U.S. agriculture.

Carbon Foot Print: The U.S. EPA estimated in 2007 that agriculture in the U.S. was responsible for about 18% of our carbon footprint, which is huge because the U.S. is the largest polluter in the world. This should include (but doesn't) the manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilizers, fuel and oil for tractors, equipment, trucking and shipping, electricity for lighting, cooling, and heating, and emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other green house gases. Unfortunately, the EPA estimate of 18% still doesn't include a large portion of the fuel, the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, some of the nitrous oxide, all of the CFCs and bromines, and most of the transport emissions. When they are counted, agriculture's share of the U.S. carbon footprint will be at least 25 to 30%.

Oftentimes we see all greenhouse gasses as being equivalent to carbon dioxide (CO2). But, methane emissions are 21 times and nitrous oxides 310 times more damaging as greenhouse gasses than CO2. Since agriculture is one of the largest producers of methane and nitrous oxide, the extent of the agricultural impact is staggering. Unless we change our bad habits of food production and long distance delivery, we will not be able to deal with climate change.

Fertilizer Pollution/Dead Zones: Factory farming is polluting the ground, river, and ocean water with high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other fertilizers. High levels of nitrates and nitrites were found in twenty-five thousand community wells that provided drinking water to two thirds of the nation's population. More than fifteen million people in two hundred eighty communities are drinking water with phosphorous or phosphates which mostly come from industrial farming operations.

Nitrate and phosphorous fertilizer runoff flow into the rivers and ultimately end up in the ocean.  The river water rides up over the heavier salt water when it reaches the ocean and algae blooms develop on the fertilizer rich water. When the algae die, the bacteria use up all of the oxygen in decomposing them. This creates an oxygen dead (or hypoxic) zone. In 1995, scientists identified 60 dead zones around the world.

Recent results published in 2008 identified 405 oceanic dead zones. The prime cause for dead zones is the use of highly soluble synthetic fertilizers, which are overused to obtain maximum yields. The government regulations on the total maximum daily load (tmdl) of synthetic nitrogen, or phosphorous fertilizer coming off of farms were established under the Clean Water Act. But those statutes are routinely not enforced. There are exceptions, but in general the regulators have been in a thirty-year coma.

Pesticides in Water: In addition to fertilizer pollution of our food and water, high amounts of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are also in the food, soil, water, and air. More than twelve thousand wells that provide water to 100 million people have arsenic or lead concentrations above the health based limits established by the U.S.EPA. Arsenic has been used on crops in the U.S. since 1867 and lead-arsenic since 1890. Arsenic is still widely used today on turf crops, corn, soy, and cotton as an herbicide or defoliant. The EPA, FDA, USDA and almost all state agencies, however, do not even keep good track of arsenic use. It is hard to regulate when you don't know how much is being used.

 
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