A tractor working in soya fields.
As temperatures soar again this summer, the problem will certainly recur. A new international report by Greenpeace, entitled Dead Zones: How Agricultural Fertilizers are Killing our Rivers, Lakes and Oceans warns that the problem is global, and that industrial agriculture is largely to blame.
The problem: fertilizers used by oil-based industrial agriculture
The report finds that fertilizer run-off from industrial agriculture is choking the planet's oceans, rivers and lakes. Too much artificial fertilizer and inappropriate storage of animal manure sends 27 million tonnes of nitrogen pollution into our waterways every year. This pollution feeds explosive growth of algae blooms that starve waters of essential oxygen, and foster conditions for harmful bacteria. These algae blooms result in dead zones that have become a recurrent feature in every ocean and on every continent.
As global warming heats our oceans and inland waters, these problems will only worsen. Unless measures are put in place to control fertilizer usage, losses to biodiversity will continue to mount, coastal and inland fisheries will suffer and summer beaches could become toxic no-go zones devoid of life.
So far, Canadian and provincial governments have fiddled with the problem by regulating dish soap, but that is only 1 per cent of the problem. It is the big polluters from industrial agriculture, livestock production, and fossil fuel burning that need attention. According to the report, the most rapidly increasing source of nitrogen in Canada is from agriculture. Since records began in 1950, nitrogen fertilizer production in Canada has increased about 75-fold. In Canada, the agricultural sector is responsible for about 82 per cent of the phosphorus and 49 per cent of the direct nitrogen pollution, mostly through run-off from fertilized soils and livestock farming.
Moreover, a June 2008 report by the OECD, finds that Canada is going in the wrong direction. Out of 28 member countries, Canada has the highest rate of increase in fertilizer usage in recent years.
The Solutions: Ecologically Sustainable Agriculture
Greenpeace is not alone in criticizing the environmental impact agriculture. The Greenpeace report echoes concerns raised by the recent United Nations and World Bank led assessment of global agriculture. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) argued that a key challenge in making agriculture ecologically sustainable will be "reducing pollution of land, air and waterways; maintaining soil health, in particular dealing with fertilizer run-off and animal waste from very large scale operations." The IAASTD was a five year study involving over 400 leading experts and scientists from 60 countries around the world, and modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide a baseline assessment for a sustainable future for agriculture. Canada continues to stand on the sidelines by refusing to adopt the report's summary and recommendations.
The Greenpeace Dead Zones report suggests a way forward by promoting a sustainable agricultural revolution. It offers concrete suggestions which, if implemented, could end the problem of algae blooms in Canadian waters. Recommendations of the report include: eliminating fertilizer run-off by reducing fertilizer usage to a minimum and making use of year round cover crops; restoring natural vegetation along waterways to enhance nutrient retention; and providing better financing of research to understand the impacts of nutrients on the proliferation of dead zones.
It's time to protect Canadian lakes, rivers and oceans from hazardous algae blooms.
Tell Prime Minister Stephen Harper to get Canada out of the dead zone and turn Canada towards more ecologically sustainable agricultural policies and practices by reducing the excessive use of agricultural fertilizer and adopting the recommendations of the UN/World Bank report on agriculture (IAASTD report).
Send Stephen Harper a clear message