Marine Habitat Loss in the Gulf of Mexico: An Agricultural Dilemma

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A rigorous drive for increased agricultural production has forced farmers to supplement their soils with fertilizers to maximize crop yields. Such high levels of fertilizer use have a negative impact on biodiversity and ecosystem health across the globe. Communities of species which have evolved and adapted to low nutrient levels in soil and water are thrown off balance as fertilizer runoff invades the ecosystem.

Standard fertilizing, pesticidal, and tillage practices implemented among farmers of the U.S. and other productive areas of the world have dramatically altered the biodiversity of ecosystems. Effects of fertilizer runoff and erosion from croplands are as far reaching as the ocean. High concentrations of fertilizer nutrients stimulate algal growth in the ocean space just beyond the large river deltas of many major drainage systems in the world. This process is known as eutrophication. This stimulation eventually leads to the deoxygenation of the lower regions of the water column as large dieoffs of algae occur. Diverse marine ecosystems that are home to many fish, plant, and microscopic species are then rendered lifeless as oxygen levels decrease and organisms either swim away or die.

Hypoxia, defined as water that does not have enough dissolved oxygen to support life, is the direct cause of this loss of diversity. In the Gulf of Mexico, a large zone of hypoxia off the coast of the Mississippi River Delta, known as the “dead zone,” is an example of a problem that results from intensive agricultural practices.

Like the issues raised by genetically modified foods, this ecologically based problem has implications for the general public, the media, the economic status of farmers and fishermen, governmental policies, and especially for agribusiness and the fertilizer industry. The practices of large, high crop yielding farms, namely agribusiness, gain many of the benefits of increased food production provided by intensive agricultural practices. Likewise, fertilizer producers benefit from increased fertilizer usage by farmers, regardless of the resulting environmental degradations. These companies must therefore have a responsibility for environmental damage. They must not hide behind political influences. Ecosystem health is an integral component to human success and survival, and agribusiness must be forced to address these issues of environmental concern. If agricultural practices are destroying ecosystems, why are these risks being taken as necessary by agribusiness? The facts, issues, and potential solutions to this ecological problem in the Gulf of Mexico are presented in the following sections.

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