Sustainable Food Production Would End Lake Erie Dead Zones

By Suzy Friedman

Summer fun should include diving into refreshing, clear oceans and lakes. But for communities around the western side of Lake Erie, the fourth largest lake of the five Great Lakes in North America, this tradition is likely to yet again be disrupted by a severe algae bloom.

Blooms occur when there is an explosion of populations of algae in a water system. Such blooms harm water quality and create “dead zones” (areas of low-oxygen due to excess algal growth) that cannot support aquatic life.

Just one year ago, a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water source for close to 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio.

This cycle of algae blooms continues, in large part, because of our need to eat. Our incredibly diverse and plentiful food system pushes farmers across the nation to be as productive as possible. To achieve high yields, farmers rely heavily on fertilizers, the engine of modern agriculture. This is great for all of us roaming the aisles at the grocery store, but there are downsides as well.

Nutrients from fertilizer that aren’t absorbed by crops can run off into local waterways, leading to water pollution and possible algae blooms. They can also release nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This year’s record rainfalls in the Midwest make the challenge of managing fertilizer even more difficult, washing away applied fertilizer before crops can even take it up.

Experts are predicting that this year’s algae bloom in Lake Erie could be among the worst ever recorded.

Harmful algae bloom. Bolles Harbor, Monroe, MI, Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.
Harmful algae bloom. Bolles Harbor, Monroe, MI, Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

This is not just happening in Lake Erie. Algal blooms and dead zones are common in far too many lakes and coastal zones.

We can prevent these blooms by helping farmers adopt practices that improve fertilizer efficiency, protect soils, and reduce losses to water and air. Just last week, the USDA announced additional investments to help Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana support the region’s farmers in reducing runoff from their fields. This is important, but we need additional strategies to bring sustainable agriculture to scale, and to effectively tackle the algae problem.

Change Is Underway

Fortunately, there is good news, and a real change is underway. One of the most exciting solutions isn’t coming from the government, but from our food system itself. Major players in the food supply chain like Walmart, Smithfield Foods, Unilever, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Campbell Soup are committing to improving sustainability and reducing fertilizer runoff.

These companies face possible supply disruptions and increased vulnerability to price and weather fluctuations. And they face increasing consumer demand for transparency and environmental stewardship. This is why they’re joining Field to Market, an organization that is working to measure sustainability efforts across major commodities like corn and soybeans. The more these companies can understand their vulnerabilities, the more they can do to make tangible changes in their production systems. These companies are leading the way in mitigating business risks through sustainable supply chain practices.

To implement on-the-ground solutions to optimize fertilizer use and improve soil health, farmers need support and counsel. And they need to know that these on-farm management changes won’t put yields at risk. Solutions to save Lake Erie will only work if they make economic sense for farmers.

That’s why an innovative program called SUSTAIN holds so much promise, and why it’s taking off. SUSTAIN was developed by United Suppliers, Inc., a customer-owned wholesale supplier of agricultural products such as fertilizer. The platform trains United Suppliers’ sales staff and retailers in the latest precision agriculture tools and soil health measures, which they then bring to the farmers they serve. With the vast majority of farmers looking to their retailers for crop management advice, the SUSTAIN model of delivering sustainability services through that infrastructure is exactly the kind of solution we need for our waters and our food system.

Campbell Soup, General Mills, and Smithfield are already promoting and deploying SUSTAIN in their supply chains, and Walmart has recognized the program in its call for increased sustainability.

To solve Lake Erie’s woes, and those of the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and far too many municipal drinking water systems across the U.S., we need solutions like SUSTAIN, increased and informed demand for sustainable grain from consumers, and commitment from food companies. Then, sustainability will become the economically viable business norm for all of agriculture.

Suzy Friedman is director of sustainable agriculture at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF is a member of Field-to-Market, and helped develop SUSTAIN. Read more about sustainable agriculture on EDF’s blog Growing Returns.

Changing Planet

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