By Contributor on August 11, 2010

By Jeff Gunderson

Now that the BP oil well has been plugged, it’s more urgent than ever to address the Gulf Coast “dead zone.”

The dead zone is a huge oxygen-starved region beneath the Gulf Coast surface, caused primarily by agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizers.

This seasonal phenomenon usually covers about 5,300 square miles, but in 2008 the zone erupted to cover 8,000 square miles — an area the size of Massachusetts. Fish and other marine life must flee the zone or perish.

Even before BP’s massive oil spill, many Gulf fisheries had already declined or disappeared because of the dead zone.

The Mississippi River is the main conduit for the harmful pesticides and fertilizers. The river gathers water from all or parts of 31 states, and it carries an average annual load of 1.65 million metric tons of nitrogen/phosphorus to the Gulf from farms, fields, yards, public parks and golf courses.

The Upper Mississippi River basin includes southern Minnesota, most of Iowa and parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. These states account for only 15 percent of the river’s drainage basin, but discharge more than 50 percent of the nitrogen that runs to the Gulf.

Those of us who live in Mississippi River states must do whatever possible to improve the river’s water quality. A range of initiatives aimed at keeping fertilizers and pesticides out of groundwater runoff must be deployed.

A 2008 report issued by the National Research Council of the National Academies, sponsored by the McKnight Foundation, took a careful look at all of the factors adversely affecting water quality in the Mississippi River. The report points to runoff from agricultural land as the primary culprit.

Organic farming is crucial for reducing this runoff.

Organic farming methods, including the use of crop rotation and cover crops, help to improve soil composition, locking nitrogen and other dead-zone nutrients in the ground around plants instead of releasing them in runoff. Organic farmers deploy buffer and filter areas to reduce runoff and erosion. Organic farmers also avoid commercial pesticides and fertilizers, reducing the toxic load that ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In short, converting more Midwestern agriculture acres to organic production will help ecosystems and economies downstream.

That help has never been needed more than now. The combination of the BP oil spill and the ongoing runoff of pesticides and fertilizers may be too much for the Gulf ecosystem to handle.

Each of us can take a few simple steps to save that ecosystem.

Reduce or eliminate use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. Buy organic produce at the store. Purchase directly from organic growers at farmers’ markets. Participate in community-supported agriculture, whereby you pay a farmer at the beginning of the season for produce, and the farmer delivers to you regularly at a central location.

These modest contributions will make a difference.

We can’t allow the Gulf to be destroyed.

Jeff Gunderson is the organics specialist for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

You can read more pieces on the environment by clicking here.

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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