Water and Welfare

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Intensively farmed pigs Credit: Compassion in World Farming

Today, 22nd March 2021, is the United Nations World Water Day. It’s about raising awareness of the value of water and the importance of protecting this vital resource on which we all depend.

For me World Water Day brings back memories of my investigations in the USA whilst writing Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, where I witnessed for myself how intensive livestock production fuels water pollution around the globe.

I had travelled about 15 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico and was looking at something resembling a construction site. All around me were oil rigs. I’d heard a lot about this place in the middle of nowhere from the media. A place out at sea where nothing lives. Called the ‘dead zone’. An expanse of water so polluted that nearly all the oxygen has gone. A liquid symbol of what happens when efforts to prevent, mitigate or contain environmental damage fail and the water represents worst-case scenario; the marine ‘end of days’. The gathering body of oxygen-depleted – hypoxic – water forms a barrier to life, killing just about everything that can’t flee.

My plan had been to see the dead zone for myself – and not from the comfort of a boat. So snorkel fixed, I slipped into the water. At surface level the pea-green sea looked nothing out of the ordinary. As I peered into the gloom below, I could see fish and the water around me looked very much alive. Had there been some mistake? I ducked down again and held my breath this time, swimming down. Now things began to grow clearer – or rather not. A few metres beneath the surface, everything changed. The water was cooler, saltier and far more murky. I could see very little and without diving kit, I could go no further. I wouldn’t reach the dead zone myself, for it was far, far below, coating the bottom half of the water in a suffocating blanket.

Sadly, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is not unique – they exist all over the world but among biologists, marine scientists and conservationists, it is among the most notorious. It now boasts the world’s second-largest area of oxygen-depleted water (the Baltic is the biggest). It’s a squalid claim to fame. The zone emerges every year, without fail, from February to October, stretching all the way from the shores of Louisiana to the upper Texan coast.

And the main culprit? Fertiliser. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the source of the problem is the ‘flowing green oceans’ of corn in the Midwest of America. It is an area of intensive corn and soybean production, where large amounts of nitrogen from fertiliser and manure are applied to the soils every year. Excess nitrate is washed into rivers and streams and ends up in the Gulf. One would think the corn and soya would be feeding the world, but you’d be wrong, it’s feeding factory farmed animals. The problems in the Gulf are squarely linked to the food on our plates.

Huge fertiliser factories seen from the air

The reality of all this was brought home to me when I took to the air in a tiny Cessna plane. I was expecting various warehouses with impressive pallet-stacks of fertiliser bags, but we flew over a small town of sprawling industry, one of many perched on the banks of the Mississippi and to my horror, they were all fertiliser factories. But the term ‘fertiliser factory’ entirely failed to convey the sheer scale of this hidden part of the industrial farming jigsaw.

Heavily polluted water pouring into the Mississippi, as seen from the air

Dead zones are emerging around the world. Industrial agriculture systems, with their high dependence on artificial fertilisers and chemicals, are a major source of pollution of our precious water. Quite simply our hunger for ‘cheap’ meat from animals fed on cheap corn grown on chemical-laced fields is poisoning and driving out precious species and damaging ecosystems on land, rivers and sea. But it’s not too late to reverse the situation – a reduction in meat, dairy and egg consumption especially from factory farms, can reduce the water impact of our diets and greatly improve the welfare of farm animals.

This is why we need to seize the opportunity of this year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit to move toward a global agreement to end factory farming. To reset our food system towards regenerative, restorative, nature-friendly ways of producing food. The UN summit presents an incredible opportunity to focus this debate in one place and form the catalyst for change on a global basis.

Please join us and become a food systems hero.

Thank you.

Note: For more information and to watch the video ‘The Downstream Disaster’ from the Dead Zone series of films, please click here 

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