High Meat Consumption Contributing to Worsening Algal Blooms

Every year, forecasts are released detailing the formation of so called “dead zones” or areas with severe algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and Lake Erie. This data is collected by universities, research institutions, and government agencies to provide a report on the health of these critically important bodies of water. The outlook for this year appears to be grim.

The winter and spring rainfall of 2018-2019 was significantly higher than normal across the central U.S. The country experienced the wettest winter on record during that period and the second wettest on record occurred the following May. Heavy downpour brought excess nutrient runoff from farms into open bodies of water. Large volumes of these nutrients have resulted in the high incidence of algal blooms. They are a major cause of fish kill as oxygen in the water is depleted causing hypoxia in marine animals.

While higher temperatures due to climate change are said to have a major influence in the worsening problem, blame is now also being thrown at the global meat industry as another culprit. The industry is said to have accelerated global warming and deforestation. Toxins from animal manure and commercial fertilizers that are used to grow livestock feeds end up in waterways further intensifying algal bloom growth. This report was revealed by Mighty, an environmental group chaired by former US congressman Henry Waxman.

Because of the high demand for meat in North America, vast tracks of native grassland are being turned into soy and corn agricultural lands to feed livestock. The use of buffer zones of foliage and wetlands that help filter out the phosphorus has slowly disappeared as they are converted to grow more corn. Many of these farms don’t have sound environmental practices and allow nutrients to flow into nearby bodies of water.

Although meat consumption is on a downward trend over the past decade, Americans are still primarily meat eaters, with an average American consuming 211 lbs per person in 2015. Many environmental groups have called for a reduction in meat consumption to curb the negative impact of nutrient runoff in lakes and rivers. Research institutions and scientists are putting together comprehensive global practices to ensure a more sustainable future for the agriculture sector. One of the proposed initiatives include the widening of drainage ditches that will let water flow into vegetated side “benches” that catch nutrients during heavy rainfall. Farmers are also being encouraged to utilize more sustainable corn production practices while consumers are urged to reduce meat consumption. This is to restore the natural balance in our ecosystem.

Scientists have understood for decades the devastating effects of excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in the degradation of major bodies of water. However, progress is still painfully slow. The Clean Water Act has triumphed in forcing wastewater treatment plants to maintain a high quality of treated effluent that’s is released into the waterways. Unfortunately, the agriculture sector has not been held to the same standard. The federal and state programs have continued to fund billions of dollars to subsidize initiatives to assist in preventing nutrient runoff, yet the problem has not been addressed and it seems to have even worsened over the years. A shift in food consumption towards more sustainable plant-based alternatives may offer a more viable solution.

If you are a municipality in Ontario and in need of a biosolids management solution, please feel free to contact us at 1 (877) 479-1388.

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/
https://phys.org/news/

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