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2011 Floods Raise a Question: What’s in all that Flood Water?

June 5, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on 2011 Floods Raise a Question: What’s in all that Flood Water?

A New York Times article published late last week raises important questions about the connections between farming in the Midwest, the nation’s “cheap food” policy, flooding in the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, or “dead zone.”

And contrary to what a lot of advocacy and trade organizations say, the answers are not simple, or a simple case of “us vs. them.”

Yes it is true that most of the contributing pollution from the Mississippi River that causes the Gulf hypoxia comes from Midwestern farms.

And yes it is true that the excessive floods of this spring and summer have pushed that water, often referred to as a “nasty chemical stew” into peoples’ yards and houses, across their parks and cities.

So there’s an immediate problem, and, true to our nature as human beings, we want to find someone to blame and a simple solution.

If farm chemicals are causing the problem, then farmers must be causing the problem, right?

Well, maybe.  But I think it’s simplistic to think that farmers willfully put as much fertilizer as they want to wherever they want to.  That stuff is expensive, and most farmers don’t have a very high profit margin.

So if farmers are careful, maybe even thrifty in their applications, then what’s the problem?

There seem to be several issues, and they are systemic, embedded in the “way we do business” rather than perhaps subject to easy change.

Many Midwestern farms are underlain with systems of tile drainage, designed to get “excess” water off the land quickly.  These farms, which really are wetlands in camouflage, need to move water off land to stay productive, but at the same time are moving nutrients off too fast also.

Why don’t the farmers accept that their farms will be under water some years?  We like to keep the prices of Corn Flakes, hamburger, and Coca Cola as low as possible, which means, in all three cases, keeping the price of corn down, which means producing a lot of corn.  Which means keeping farms in “full production” mode.

There are solutions to balancing the interests of agriculture, with the interests of clean water, and both with the broader “public interest,” but those solutions are not simple, or cheap.

But back to the Times’ article:  enough interested parties (“stakeholders”) are quoted so that the complexity of the issue begins to emerge.  And that’s what good journalists ought to be doing.

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