While you may not think of our farmers as polluters, agricultural pollution is far more common than you may realize.
Ideally, farming practices work in tandem with their surrounding environments. That means that crops are managed in such a way that the soil is not overused, then livestock provides a method of waste disposal, which provides nutrients back to the soil. This cycle is sustainable, and healthy for the environment.
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However, because the demand for agriculturally produced products is only increasing, farms are forced to yield larger crops using the same amount of land. This has led to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer as well as the over-farming of soil which leads to erosion.
Fortunately, it is possible to reduce the amount of agricultural pollution we produce, but not without awareness and teamwork.
What Is Agricultural Pollution?
Agricultural pollution is what happens when products used in farming or byproducts of them, negatively affect the environment or the economy in a region. It includes both liquid and solid waste products, aerosolized herbicides and pesticides, and even erosion and dust.
It occurs in several ways. When spraying anything from fertilizer to herbicides, products can blow to other fields and create widespread devastation and crop loss.
Chemicals can also seep into groundwater when it rains, or when contaminated sediment runs into nearby bodies of water. Nutrients from fertilizer and manure can also contaminate groundwater in the same way.
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Erosion and sedimentation are also potential agricultural pollution concerns. Erosion can occur from over-irrigation, over tilling, or poor drainage practices. The eroded soil can enter bodies of water which causes sedimentation and upsets the ecosystem.
While chemical pesticides and fertilizers have become necessary to maintain huge crop outputs on smaller areas of land, their misuse has led to many problems. A large amount of the sprayed fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are not absorbed and remain in the soil.
Where do unabsorbed chemicals go?
From here, they either seep into the groundwater or enter nearby water bodies via runoff. Contaminated groundwater can be detrimental to the human population as a large percentage of cities get their drinking water from these sources. High levels of nitrates in drinking water can lead to serious health problems in newborn babies.
This kind of agricultural pollution is extremely common in rural areas.
The effects of runoff into bodies of water can be devastating. The increase in nutrients that results from the large amounts of fertilizer can cause rampant growth of algae. These algal blooms can affect levels of photosynthesis by blocking light to other plants.
In simple terms, they kill off necessary plant life by cutting off their nutrient sources.
They can also deplete the oxygen levels in the water, causing massive die-offs. In some cases, the runoff can travel great distances and accumulate in large bodies of water. Huge bodies of water, actually.
Both the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico have large “dead-zones” which are incapable of sustaining life due to low levels of oxygen in the water as a direct result of sediment and agricultural pollution.
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Foreign chemicals being introduced to the environment clearly have a negative effect, but other agricultural practices can create problems as well.
Improper irrigation and drainage can lead to the erosion of the soil. This form of agricultural pollution is dangerous because of the effects of sedimentation. That is when that displaced soil accumulates in waterways.
Sediment that results from erosion can build up in nearby bodies of water. This build-up can also reduce photosynthesis and lower oxygen levels. This sediment is often polluted with the chemical discussed above, increasing the potential for destructive effects.
Not only that, but it can affect the depth of bodies of water, killing off fish and their food sources, and reducing drinking water for wildlife populations.
How Does Agricultural Pollution Affect Us?
Humans can be affected by agricultural pollution in a number of ways. The most apparent is through drinking water. According to the USGS, in 2015, over 20 percent of national water withdrawals came from groundwater sources.
Groundwater that is contaminated by agricultural pollution has an increased level of nitrates which directly results from pesticides and fertilizer in the soil. Increased levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to many health problems including cancer of the stomach, esophagus, colon, and bladder.
A condition called methemoglobinemia, also known as blue-baby syndrome, can also result from increased nitrates in drinking water. This condition affects the ability of the blood to move oxygen through the body. This can lead to shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, loss of consciousness, and a blue-tint in the extremities.
In severe cases, it can lead to coma or death.
More Dangers of Agricultural Pollution
Another potential danger lies in heavy metals, which can be found in pesticides and animal manure. These can enter the water in the same way as the other pollutants. Heavy metals, which include lead, have been shown to cause many adverse health effects in humans.
Large-scale livestock operations are damaging to the environment in another way.
They can release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. Large livestock operations are a major contributor to the release of greenhouse gasses which is the number one cause of global climate change.
The dead zones that result from algal blooms depleting oxygen levels in bodies of water can negatively affect the livelihood of fishing communities that depend on an abundance of wildlife to make a living. While the term dead zone may be a misnomer, the areas are not actually devoid of life, certain populations can be effected more than others.
The dead zones result from an upending of the ecosystem, with some prey animals and plants being depleted. This causes an upheaval in the food chain which causes a massive drop in the wildlife population.
These algal blooms can also be dangerous to humans. Contact with water that has high concentrations of algae can cause rashes, stomach and liver problems, respiratory illnesses and neurological effects.
This list of potentially damaging effects caused by agricultural pollution would seem to be enough to make us reconsider some of these practices. Consumers should at least know where their food comes from and what type of practices the producers of that food use. A steady demand for more thoughtful agricultural practices will lead to more producers using those practices.
Ways to Prevent Agricultural Pollution
Agricultural pollution is a large problem that requires concerted efforts to reduce. Fortunately, there are many practices that can help with this goal.
In order to reduce agricultural pollution effectively, a concerted effort must be made across a large community that includes both farmers and livestock-raisers. To prevent pollutants from entering a waterway, communities that inhabit and use the land for agricultural purposes must be aware of the effect they have.
One farmer using less polluting methods will not solve the problem. It will take many, if not all, members of a community to make a significant change.
Potential steps to combat agricultural pollution include:
- A reduction in soil tilling. Soil which is tilled before planting may lead to increased runoff and decreased nutrients in the soil.
- Certain grasses and clover, as well as trees and shrubs planted around fields, can absorb nutrients in the soil before they contaminate the groundwater.
- Proper storage and disposal of animal waste can reduce groundwater pollution.
- Reducing amounts of pesticide and fertilizer used.
- Using pesticides and fertilizer at the appropriate times during the growth cycle.
- Crop rotation.
None of these things will combat agricultural pollution without first acknowledging the problem and deciding to deal with it. The production of crops for consumption is of vital importance, but we must be able to balance that with the need to maintain healthy ecosystems and a clean environment.
Agricultural pollution is a broad term used to describe the many sources of pollution that can result from farming and raising livestock. The reason we should care about this is that it can have adverse effects on the surrounding ecosystems and possibly ecosystems that are much farther away.
Our need to feed a growing population created the need to produce more food. To produce more food, we had to protect it from natural enemies, so we used pesticides. To get more food from the same amount of space, we introduced fertilizers to the soil. Both solved their problems but created new, unforeseen problems.
Evidence shows that to continue doing things the way they have been done will lead to many problems for humans and the environment. We face the contaminated water, toxic air, and climate change.
Pollutants cause environments to become nearly uninhabitable by destroying established ecosystems. There is a list of potential solutions, but it will take a unified effort by farmers both large and small to reduce the damage being caused by agricultural pollution.
As consumers, we have an obligation to use our power to insist that our products come from farms that use methods that are helping to reach this goal. Production depends on demand.
If consumers are happy buying food from farms that produce it using methods that have adverse effects on the environment, then those products will remain on store shelves.
However, if there is little demand for those products, and an increase in demand for products produced using environmentally conscious methods, then we will see an increase in good practices in farming.
It is not just up to the farmers and livestock-raisers. It is not just up to the consumer.
As with the plan to reduce pollution, which requires many people working together, to change how food is produced all sides must make an effort. The farmer to use more environmentally friendly methods and the consumer to raise their awareness of how their food is produced.
These two ideas working together is what it will take to change things from how they have always been to how they need to be.