Oil and Water Don’t Mix
Observations on Food, Agriculture and the Oil Spill.
When I was 15 years-old, between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I studied marine biology and oceanography at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
My parents packed me onto a bus at Port Authority in New York, and off I went on a three-day Greyhound bus ride. It would be my first extended time away from home.
It was there, on a field trip to the Gulf of Mexico with my fellow program students, that I discovered my love for our environment. We were visiting a remote state marine research station on an uninhabited barrier island protecting Louisiana’s wetlands from the full force of the gulf. It was a spectacular place with beautiful sand beaches.
After dinner we were all goofing off and went out for a swim at night. From the water, we watched a dozen wild horses gallop down the moonlit beach.
This recollection comes back very strongly in the wake of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that continues to pour out at rates scientists say may be 10 to 20 times what BP has admitted publicly. The gulf coast is one of the richest nurseries of our major fisheries, and an eco-system beyond compare.
It is delicate. And it is being devastated by the spill.
The Gulf: an Eco-System already depleted by Chemical Agriculture.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was already a serious environmental issue.
Threatening to kill the area’s $3 billion fisheries industry, the dead zone—about the size of the state of New Jersey, and growing—is caused by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer runoff from conventional agriculture that travels down the Mississippi River and empties into the gulf. Algae feed on the cheap nitrogen and deplete the waters of oxygen, killing all sea life in the region.
Organic agriculture is a solution to the synthetic nitrogen runoff problem, since these chemicals are prohibited under certified organic standards. Plus, healthy organic soils hold together better, preventing topsoil and fertilizer runoff into rivers and streams. Additionally, organic farming uses on average 30% less energy inputs, based on Cornell University research, and is less reliant on fossil fuels. And healthy organic soils tie up more carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and thus helping to reduce agriculture’s impact on global warming. (Agriculture contributes more than 20% of greenhouse gases toward global warming.)
Bigger than the Oil Spill: Chemical Fertilizers contribute to A.D.H.D.
A study conducted by the University of Montreal and published in the journal Pediatrics followed 1,139 children along with interviews with parents. Researchers found a strong link between children’s attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and exposure to commonly used pesticides on fruits and vegetables.
The researchers found toxic, synthetic organophosphate pesticide residues in the urine of 94% of the kids tested. Compare this to a landmark 2008 Emory University study which found that when kids switched to organically grown fruits and vegetables in the diet, urine levels of the pesticides dropped to undetectable levels.
There is more substantial data out there that links toxic, synthetic pesticide use to childhood autism, obesity and early onset diabetes. Endocrine disruptors in pesticides and plastic packaging threaten the metabolism and development of our kids—and also all of us are exposed to the same chemicals!
It’s just that the kids soak up more per body weight and are much more impacted by these chemicals in their childhood development.
Organic Too Expensive? Try Health Care.
As an organic ambassador dedicated to promoting a sustainable food system, I and many others are working to help communicate the benefits of an economic system that accounts for the significant external costs to our health and environment.
If we saw such a system in place, then we would also see the true value of natural, organic and sustainable products and businesses, which help keep these costly toxic chemicals out of our bodies, homes and environment. It would put polluting, toxic industries at a competitive disadvantage.
Speaking of which, I hope BP, Halliburton and the other multinationals responsible for the oil spill, and that were pointing fingers of blame at each other in congressional hearings, pay through the nose to begin to account for this oil spill. It would be a lesson to others. But no amount of money is going to be able to prevent the impact of the environmental destruction already done.
Now there’s yet another external cost that needs to be accounted for.