By Brett Garling
We often forget that our actions on land always affect the ocean. The effects can be positive; for example, by banning plastic bags, municipalities are helping reduce the roughly 20 billion pounds of plastic that enter the ocean every year. That’s great news and the deplastification movement is thankfully picking up steam. Yet, we also continue practices on land that greatly harm the ocean. The destruction, however, largely happens out of sight and out of mind. For example, industrial animal agriculture is seriously impacting our waterways and ocean yet few people know it. Yes the treatment of the animals is ghastly – and that is reason enough to avoid purchasing factory farmed meat – but there is also an impact on the ocean. Let’s explore three ways industrial animal agriculture negatively affects the ocean:
1) Farm waste doesn’t stay on farms…
To the gardener, a little bit of manure is a natural part of the nutrient cycle. This beneficial view of animal waste, however, breaks down when industrial farming methods are considered. For one, animals are fed an endless stream of antibiotics and hormones, which are excreted and end up in our waterways and ocean. And even if the manure were from a strict grass-fed diet, there is still a problem: the scale on which factory farms produce animal waste creates nitrogen shocks to the environment, encouraging disease outbreak and destructive algae blooms. What is the result of all this on the ocean? Here are a few examples from the NRDC:
++ Huge open-air waste lagoons, often as big as several football fields, are prone to leaks and spills. In 1995 an eight-acre hog waste lagoon in North Carolina burst, spilling 25 million gallons of manure into the New River. The spill killed about 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing.
++ Runoff of chicken and hog waste from factory farms in Maryland and North Carolina is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, killing millions of fish and causing skin irritation, short-term memory loss and other cognitive problems in local people.
++ Nutrients in animal waste cause algal blooms, which use up oxygen in the water, contributing to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where there’s not enough oxygen to support aquatic life. The dead zone fluctuates in size each year, extending a record 8,500 square miles during the summer of 2002 and stretching over 7,700 square miles during the summer of 2010.
++ Ammonia, a toxic form of nitrogen released in gas form during waste disposal, can be carried more than 300 miles through the air before being dumped back onto the ground or into the water, where it causes algal blooms and fish kills.
2) Industrial animal agriculture contributes directly to sea temperature rise and ocean acidification
How could pigs in North Carolina kill corals in the Coral Sea? It’s pretty simple really. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – more than all transportation combined. As a primary driver of global warming – more than cars – animal agriculture is directly affecting the global ocean in two ways. First, the rising atmospheric temperature is raising global ocean temperatures leading to widespread coral bleaching. (Bleaching slows coral growth, makes them susceptible to disease, and leads to large-scale reef die-off). Second, a greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing the acidity of the global ocean, handicapping the extensive roster of marine organisms that build shells or skeletons.
3) Industrial animal agriculture hogs fresh water
Industrial animal agriculture is very water intensive. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that one hamburger requires 660 gallons of water to produce – the equivalent of 2 months worth of showers. Then, consider the estimation that the meat and dairy industries combined use nearly 1/3 (29%) of all the fresh water in the world today. Essentially, the once-fresh inputs of clean, natural water into the ocean are being replaced by flows of polluted farm runoff. And on a massive scale. It’s no wonder that animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction, according to the EPA.
What can we do in the face of such large-scale destructive practices that harm the ocean? (Not to mention, harm ourselves through consumption of contaminated meat and water?) Simple: eat less meat and dairy. When you do, eat local sustainably-raised meat and dairy. And tell your friends to do the same!