WASHINGTON (June 1, 2020)—With federal scientists expected to forecast, within days, the size of this year’s “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a new study shows that one of the dead zone’s biggest causes—nitrogen that flows downriver from Midwest farms—has been responsible for up to $2.4 billion in damages to Gulf fish stocks and their habitat every year for more than 30 years. The amount of nitrogen coming off Midwest corn and soybean farms, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study, equates to enough fertilizer to fill 3,000 standard size shipping containers every year since 1980 on average.
The economic analysis, detailed in the UCS report “Reviving the Dead Zone: Solutions to Benefit Both Gulf Coast Fishers and Midwest Farmers," built on peer-reviewed research that estimated the damage, in dollars, that a given quantity of excess nitrogen has on fisheries and marine habitat. UCS applied that damage value to the Gulf based upon the peak nitrogen influx between 1980 and 2017.
“Gulf Coast communities know that the dead zone impacts their livelihoods, but research has never put a dollar value on its damage to the fishing industry,” said Rebecca Boehm, an economist at UCS and author of the report. “This study quantifies both the amount of nitrogen flowing to the Gulf from farms upstream, and the toll it is taking economically on the foundation of the Gulf fishing industry.”
For many farmers looking to maximize yields and profits, inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer is a convenient boost to crops. However, increasingly intense rainfall in the spring flushes excess fertilizer into streams and rivers, and much of that nitrogen flows down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Nutrient overload in coastal waters creates low-oxygen areas, which can cause widespread die-offs of some fish and shellfish and drive others from their normal habitat. The persistently large dead zone can lead to reduced catch and increased fuel demands for Gulf fishers who must travel further out for their hauls.
Local residents’ professions, and by extension way of life, seem more threatened now than ever.
“Lots of factors cause shrimpers to lose business, but COVID-19 may completely shut many of us down,” said John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance and a Gulf shrimper for more than three decades. “Hopefully the industry will get through this health crisis, and in the meantime, we need to address what we can to ensure the Gulf’s long-term sustainability. As long as the dead zone persists, our way of life, and the rich seafood culture of the region is in danger.”
Abundant research has shown that Midwest farmers can help protect the Gulf economy and its fishers by cultivating healthy, living soil that minimizes erosion and nutrient runoff, increases water-holding and draining capacity, and reduces the need for fertilizers. Variations in climate, geography, and crop type call for tailored farm practices, but in general, crop soil is healthier when it is kept covered and undisturbed and contains living roots year-round. Common “healthy soil” practices include growing cover crops, diversifying crop rotations, and planting deep-rooted perennial plants.
But farmers need financial and technical support to change the way they operate, and the UCS report recommends a variety of policy changes. Specifically, Congress should ensure that farmers who prioritize soil health get discounts on their crop insurance policy. Congress should also expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Stewardship Program and other farm programs that already incentivize healthy farming practices so that more farmers can participate, according to the report. State governments can also use taxpayer money to support farmers who protect local water supplies, which would reduce state outlays for local water cleanup and prevent damage downstream to Gulf fisheries. Since 2015, state legislators have introduced 217 bills in 30 states to improve soil health.
“Midwest farmers and Gulf fishers are in this together,” said Boehm. “Nitrogen pollution and unhealthy soil hurt the ecosystem upon which the Gulf fishing economy is based. With technical and financial support, farmers can work the land to increase their own resilience, while also protecting the vital Gulf fishing culture and economy downstream.”