Fracking and Farming Don't Mix: Isn't It Time We Exhibited Some Precaution?

Let's take it as given that fracking is an increasingly controversial practice. So far most the attention has been on the current and potential effects on the water supply in areas where hydraulic fracturing is conducted, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions. Comparatively little focus has been placed on the potential effects on agriculture and our food supply.

Earlier this week I had a chance to attend a meeting of Food Systems Network New York and learn about several of the very much unanswered questions regarding fracking's effect on our local food supply.

Much like with the effects on water and our atmosphere, when it comes to food and agriculture, the short answer is that we simply don't know what the ultimate effects of big expansions of fracking will be. But there are a number of important issues that need to be addressed, many of which parallel those related to water supply.

But let's set the stage: According to data presented by Bob Lewis of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, of the roughly 225 farms participating in the New York City greenmarket system, 40 overlap with the Marcellus Shale formation and therefore are in areas potentially to be targeted by frackers. That's just greenmarket farms keep in mind; the total number of farms on top of Marcellus Shale is much greater, though the exact numbers have yet to be compiled.

As for potential negative impacts to those farms, Catskills Mountainkeeper has detailed an extensive list. Here are some of them (excluding ones related to water quality and livestock poisoning, which TreeHugger's covered previously).

  • Soil Contamination Increased soil acidity around oil and gas pipelines reduces the available essential nutrients for plants, making it more difficult for health fruits and vegetables grow. Methane leaking from gas pipelines, reduces the ability of plants to fix nitrogen, create cellulose, and maintain proper hydration. Fracking itself releases toxic heavy metals into the soil (arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury) and these can get absorbed by plants, ultimately exposing animals and humans to them.
  • Fragmented Farmland Each gas well drilled requires the use of millions of gallons of water. This water is taken from nearby lakes, streams, and rivers and is then loaded with tens of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals and sand. Unlike the water used in farming, which remains a part of the water cycle, water used for fracking fluid becomes largely irrecoverable and the risk of pumping aquifers, rivers, lakes, and streams dry is serious. Between 60-80% of the water used in fracking remains underground where it can potentially leak into and contaminate underground aquifers. The remaining 20-40% of the water returns to the surface, where it can poison nearby water sources if it is not dealt with properly.

Then there are questions of certification and regulation of food. Will food grown near fracking operations undergo additional testing? What about organic certifications for farms near fracking wells?

We simply don't know with certainty what the effects will be. And it's safe to say that the natural gas industry has so far exhibited the same 'nothing to see here; we've got it all under control, don't worry' attitude about fracking that oil companies exhibit when it comes to deepwater oil drilling.

Even the smallest hint of the precautionary principle is seldom seen when it's exactly that precaution over fracking that we ought to be exhibiting right now. There's too much we don't know about the impacts, and that which we do know shows that fracking has the potential for serious environmental and social damage.

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