10/29/2009 06:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dead Zones, Fertilizer and Personal Responsibility

By Timothy LaSalle

I come from a very "conventional" agricultural background. My family grew peaches, walnuts, cotton and raised Holstein heifers in the Central Valley of California. I would eventually have my own conventional dry-lot dairy farm on the central coast of California. We did what was considered modern at the time, and used sprays for weeds and insects.

This conventional rearing was also conservative in nature. Perhaps not as the neo-conservatives have defined it today, but the conservative where personal responsibility was highly valued. If you made a mess, you cleaned it up. It was similar to the Gingrich-era Washington rhetoric demanding personal responsibility, especially when referring to welfare recipients and others receiving federal money to support their business endeavors.

Today, I strive to embrace a more ethical use of this term and examine what my personal responsibility is to others. As a parent, I know I am responsible for doing my best to assure my children that their futures are promising. I'm sure most parents feel this way. As an agriculturalist, I aspire to do good by feeding people in a manner that uses shared resources responsibly, and considers the opportunities of the future.

I'm very familiar with the saying "don't complain about farmers with your mouth full," but many agriculturists in this country have yet to acknowledge their accountability for what has already been taken from our common future. The lifeless "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico is chemical agriculture's biggest ecological albatross in the US. Inexplicably, we've turned a blind eye to the impact of agricultural systems creating such aquatic disasters where rivers meet oceans all over the world.

These hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) zones are caused by increases in nitrogen and phosphorus levels in water supplies. In the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River functions as a garbage-chute for an estimated $270 million worth of fertilizer runoff, depositing all the wastes it accumulates from our heartland in the formerly biodiverse coastal water areas. These fertilizer-laden deposits fuel algal blooms that consume the oxygen dissolved in the water, reducing oxygen concentration to levels incapable of supporting life. The size and concentration of the dead zone varies year to year. Some say it's as big as New Jersey, some say Massachusetts. Either way, that sounds too big for me.

I wonder about the people who rely on the Gulf's waters to produce fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters. Rebuilding the Gulf seafood industry, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, is made much more difficult by the impact of dead zones. Who do the shrimpers and fishers think is responsible? Their traditional means of putting food on the table--and in our restaurants--and keeping a roof over their heads are being destroyed by excessive use of agricultural nitrogen fertilizer, as well as the array of herbicides and pesticides used within our watersheds. Can you imagine what would happen if the beef industry was so directly destroying chicken industry?

Over time, the ecological and human health care costs of these agricultural toxins and escaped nutrients are all being externalized beyond the farm sector, pushed out to sea and out of sight. What does that mean? Rather than clean up our toxic agricultural ways we flush away the evidence, denying any accountability and shifting real costs to other people in another time.

If there were no options for producing food at equal or greater levels without these toxins, perhaps it's a trade we would reluctantly make. However, research has shown us that we can produce equal amounts of food and more environmental benefits through ecological, biological and organic methods.

My conservative farm upbringing taught me much about what conviction, persistence and ethics can accomplish. It also made me smart enough to recognize that continuing to pollute our land and water was unacceptable, and brave enough to say it out loud.

As we grow older, we should be honest enough to question the approaches we learned as children that clearly don't work as they need to. To conserve our ability to eat from our land, our waterways, it's time to recognize what lessons our "conventional" methods are teaching us about fairness, stewarding shared resources, and what our priorities should be.

We can all lead in learning new lessons with our families and friends. We can all Demand Organic.

Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that improves the health and well-being of people and the planet. We were founded in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, in 1947 by organic pioneer J.I. Rodale.

Our research findings are clear: A global organic transformation will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere and restore soil fertility. Our mission: We improve the health and well-being of people and the planet.