The Problem with Corporate Industrial Agriculture and Minnesota’s Water

Farm Field

One of the greatest threats to the quality and health of Minnesota’s rivers, lakes, streams, and drinking water sources is excess chemicals, fertilizers, and sediment from irresponsible agricultural practices.

There are many ways these pollutants enter our water, but runoff from single crop farmland and animal factory farms are some of the largest contributors to this problem.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), in the southeast, southwest, and across a wide band stretching from the Twin Cities to extreme western Minnesota, less than 40 percent — and many times less than 20 percent — of streams and rivers fully support swimming and recreation.  The biggest issue is generally elevated levels of E. coli bacteria from animal manure. The widespread nature of this problem in farm country warrants government intervention as voluntary measures featuring tax-payer financed incentives have not come close to solving the problem. In many ways, the problem has become worse.

Unaccountable industrial corporate farming practices are bad for our water. Here's why:

Lack of buffers and living cover on the land

Pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus enter our water in various ways, especially from runoff.  There is simple and cost effective measure that can help prevent these pollutants from ever reaching our waters – vegetative buffer strips planted alongside the borders of farmland and waterways as well as other living cover on agricultural land. Unfortunately many large farms don't use buffer strips and special interests have fought requirements to include this commonsense measure.

Drain tile or subsurface tile

These are artificial drainage systems that keep moisture levels more consistent in the soil and increase productivity on the land. However, tile drainage negatively impacts water quality because more water flows more rapidly into our ditches, streams, and rivers. That leads to increased flooding and erosion. In addition, tile drainage carries higher levels of nutrients and pesticides into our water which can lead to more harmful algae outbreaks and impact water quality.

Industrial factory farming

These “farms” confine tens of thousands of animals in very close quarters.  These facilities produce huge amounts of animal waste, too much to sustainably apply it to the land as fertilizer. The excess waste is stored in lined pits that can leak into groundwater supplies. In some cases there have catastrophic spills when pit walls have broken open. The manure pits are very bad for air quality for surrounding residents.

Over use of antibiotics

Approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used in meat and poultry production. The vast majority is used on healthy animals to promote growth, or prevent disease in crowded or unsanitary conditions.  However, antibiotic use in animals can promote the development of hard-to-treat antibiotic-resistant superbugs that make people sick. The threat to public health from the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is real and growing.  Humans are at risk both due to potential presence of superbugs in meat and poultry, and to the general migration of superbugs into the environment, where they can transmit their genetic immunity to antibiotics to other bacteria, including bacteria that make people sick.

Pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals

In many watersheds where single crop agriculture or factory farming dominates the landscape, less than half of lakes and rivers fully support swimming  because of excess phosphorus and nitrogen. Many of the communities are facing drinking water contamination as a result of using thses chemical inputs.  According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s Annual Drinking Water Report, 537 public water supply wells across the state have elevated nitrate levels, and roughly 10 percent of private wells in vulnerable areas already exceed health limits. The cost to treat drinking water for nitrates to make it safe to drink is high -- 10 communities in Minnesota will face bills in the thousands of dollars per household. bThese chemical nutrients, which are products of from fertilizers runoff and animal waste, can cause harmful algal outbreaks . This same type of algae shut down the drinking water supply for Toledo, Ohio for three days in the summer of 2014, leaving nearly 500,000 people without safe drinking water. It is also the cause of the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico which grew to record size in 2017.

Pesticides are found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.  They are used to kill weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides), fungus (fungicides), rodents (rodenticides), and others.   Because of overuse of pesticides and only one crop on much of the land, pests become specialized and resistant to these chemicals, which leads to more pesticides being applied.  Pesticides are hazardous to human health causing reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, kidney and liver damage, and endocrine disruption.

Ethanol and Monoculture

Federal law has mandated that gasoline for cars and trucks to be mixed with an increasing amount of corn-based ethanol since 2007. Ethanol burns less carbon dioxide than refined petroleum products.  This has meant that a lot of corn is grown just for fuel, not food. The environmental impacts of the “corn boom” may outweigh the benefits of the biofuel.

Since the mandate, landowners have filled-in wetlands and plowed prairies — releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil — to cash in on high corn prices. Billions of pounds of fertilizer have been sprayed onto the landscape to make it more economically productive, some of which has polluted drinking water. This has cost water ratepayers millions of dollars to clean up and treat to make the water safe to drink. This has also led to a drastic reduction in land set aside for conservation. We have allowed our rivers, lakes and streams to be contaminated to incentivize a supposedly cleaner alternative, ethanol. The consequences of corn ethanol are so severe that many scientists now reject corn-based ethanol and consider it a bad environmental policy.

These problems have one thing in common -- they all negatively impact our drinking water sources. This puts our health at risk and costs water ratepayers millions of dollars to clean up and make it safe to drink again.  If we are going to achieve safe and affordable drinking water for everyone- especially in rural areas of Minnesota- we need to advocate for more solutions that will clean up our drinking water sources.

Solutions for industrial corporate agriculture and making change in our communities

Agriculture has played an important role in Minnesota’s history and will undoubtedly be a critical part of Minnesota’s future. Unfortunately, there are environmental challenges associated with providing food and fiber for the world.

Fortunately, there are some simple and cost effective measures that can help prevent many of these pollutants from ever reaching our waters.  Some, however, are going to take much more work to implement and political will  to finally address the problem that runoff from industrial farming is causing. 

Click here to read about solutions that Clean Water Action is advocating for in our communities and at the state capitol.

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