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Groundwater Contamination from Nitrates

Field SprayingNot so many years ago, my brother-in-law, a Nebraska farmer, made a discovery. The well from which his family pulled their drinking water, a source that had served his family for generations, was polluted from nitrates. The pump house was located near their home on the side of a hill. Near the top of the hill and for hundreds of acres beyond, were the contoured, non-irrigated fields where he grew corn one year, soybeans the next. To maintain productivity and following fertilizer company directions, he had spread nitrogen supplements in a huge, single dose, year after year.

The practice didn’t cost him his water supply. But it did cost him a hefty chunk of change to put in an expensive water purification system. Luckily, his young children were none the worse for it. But it’s common knowledge that nitrates in water cause blue baby syndrome or methemoglobinemia a disease that interferes with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen where it’s needed. Methemoglobinemia can also affect adults who have digestive problems that don’t allow them to break down nitrates in the gastric system. Nitrates are also linked to some cancers.

We’re often asked why we support organic farming practices and why our own garden is organic. Often these questions come from naysayers who point to questionable studies that conclude organic produce is no healthier than conventionally grown produce. They’ll claim we’re wasting money buying and growing organic produce. We respond by telling them it’s not that simple.

This report in The New York Times shows one of the consequences of high-yield, chemical-dependent farming. Short take: much of the ground water in California’s agricultural Central Valley is highly contaminated by nitrates. This comes from over-use of chemical fertilizers and the leaching of manure waste from giant cattle feedlots. We’re especially haunted by the reference in the story to “ghost drinking fountains” in the schools, turned off so children can’t drink the bad water.

Nitrogen is necessary for plant growth and its used by organic farmers and gardeners as well as conventional growers. But organic growers use it more responsibly and in more environmentally-friendly forms. For years, farmers have been encouraged to dump nitrogen fertilizers on their fields — without regard to waste and overuse — in an attempt to increase yields (this practice also increases sales for the chemical companies). But is it worth it to contaminate our water supply? Same thing, of course, goes for herbicides and pesticides. Now that we have genetically-modified crops that are resistant to sprays, why not go ahead and use as much of these poisons as we can, just to be safe? These toxins have worked their way into our water supplies as well.

Often the reasons we embrace organic gardening practices and produce are not immediately obvious. Protecting our water supply is one of them. Yes, we want pure, healthy water for ourselves. And we want it for our children. And their children as well. If we don’t need harmful levels of chemicals to grow all the food we need, if indeed, organic farming practices are capable not only of growing the same amounts we grow now and even more (PDF), why should we not change? Who’s going to say that it’s worth risking our children’s health?

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