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A Not-So-Happy Meal

Our diets have consequences not just for health and well-being, but for the environment as well. One of the most visible is the impacts from pollutants that run off from fields and animal operations and get into waterways. Synthetic fertilizers and manure contain nutrients than enable plant growth, including aquatic plants like algae. Given enough nutrients, algae will become dense enough to shade organisms who live below the surface.

More importantly, as algae die off, their decomposition consumes oxygen that is dissolved in the water, essentially choking off animal life. This process is called eutrophication. Runoff from agricultural and feedlot operations in the great breadbasket of the Midwest eventually finds its way to the Mississippi River, forming a huge hypoxic (low oxygen) ‘dead zone’ where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. In summer 2017, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) estimated the dead zone to be roughly the size of New Jersey.

At a personal scale, when you bite into a hamburger, your consumption is the end of a long supply chain laden with nutrient pollution, especially from fertilizer used to grow feed corn and from cattle manure and slaughterhouse waste. On a life cycle basis, each quarter-pound burger leads to enough nutrient pollution to produce about 1 square meter of thick algae.[1] For a hungrier kayaker, the production of ten burgers indirectly causes approximately the area of algae growth seen in this image.

 

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[1] Xue, X. and A.E. Landis. 2010. Eutrophication potential of food consumption patterns. Environmental Science & Technology, 44(16): 6450-6456.

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A Not-So-Happy Meal