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From Southern cotton plantations made possible by the labor of enslaved people to intensive Great Plains grain production, which led to the 1930s Dust Bowl, to water engineering projects that turned the California desert into one of the world’s most productive regions, large-scale agriculture (often for international export markets) is at the very heart of American history.The scale on which agricultural projects take place has ballooned since the 1950s.In California, which accounts for 11 percent of US agricultural output, mostly grown in large-scale industrial farms, drought is a regular feature of the climate.
Dead zones have become common in water bodies across the US.
In 2015, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – created by runoff from manure and other agricultural fertilizer in the Mississippi floodplain – was more than 5,000 square miles: this is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
In Iowa and across the Midwest, swimming and other recreational activities are no longer allowed in many lakes and rivers.
Too much nitrogen in a body of water can lead to an overgrowth of algae; when the algae die and decompose, they draw oxygen from the water, creating a “dead zone,” where no other plant or animal life can survive.
Today, the hallmarks of industrial crop production are the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery; huge fields that are anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of acres in size; a distinct lack of crop diversity or crop rotation; a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
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Industrial crops are not just vast acres of corn and soybeans in the Midwest, grown for animal feed, ethanol and processed food.Phosphorous, another key element in fertilizer, can also cause problems like the bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie, which forced Toledo, Ohio, to shut down its municipal water system in 2014, requiring its 400,000 residents to drink bottled water for three days.Algae blooms have gotten larger in Lake Erie and other water bodies in recent years, primarily due to phosphorus in fertilizer on farm fields upstream.What we have instead are depleted soils on one hand and toxically excessive animal wastes on the other – both problems generated by commercial agriculture.The major problem with industrialized farming is that it is unsustainable: it relies heavily on finite resources, including fossil fuels and rapidly-depleting water tables, and it negatively impacts the environment, which affects everything everywhere with real costs at all levels.As temperatures warm and weather patterns change, water for agriculture will be increasingly less available, which will have repercussions on crop yield and food security.A 2015 USDA study projects that by 2060 in nearly all regions of the country, there will be significantly reduced water availability for agriculture, primarily as a result of climate change, but also due to current use patterns.Bacteria on the roots of legumes like peas and beans naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into nutrients that can be taken up by other plants.Until 1913, cultivating legumes, spreading manure and crop residues, as well as mining deposits of bird droppings were the primary ways to access nitrogen for farming.Crops on industrial farms grow in monocultures: vast fields of one variety are often planted in the same place year after year or, as in the case of many corn and soybean farmers, are rotated between just two crops.Monoculture planting depletes the soil, increasing the need for chemical fertilizer, and makes plants more vulnerable to disease, pests and weeds.