Dead Zones: How Agricultural Fertilizers are Killing our Rivers, Lakes and Oceans

Feature story - July 7, 2008
Last year, many Canadians had their summer holiday at the lake interrupted by the appearance of toxic dead zones caused by hazardous algae blooms. In Western Canada, Lake Winnipeg experienced record algae pollution which has doubled in the last decade. Across Quebec, at least 160 lakes were officially contaminated last year, with many declared to be unsafe for humans.

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.

Case study - Gulf of California

Excessive fertilizer use and algae blooms in the Gulf of California »

Read more

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.

Case study - Gulf of Mexico

Fertilized to Death

The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico »

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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.

Take Action

Take Action

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

Related Greenpeace documents and reports

You can read some Greenpeace documents and reports on the environmental impacts of agriculture and potential solutions.

Agriculture's climate change role demands urgent action 

08 January 2008

Genetically Engineered Rice: Not Sustainable Agriculture 

01 October 2004

The future of farming: Industrial Agriculture and the Growth of GM is adding to the problem of world hunger 

01 September 2003

The real green revolution

 01 February 2002

Recipes against hunger - success stories for the future of agriculture 

01 September 2001