If you’re a “water person” like me, you probably derive great pleasure in swimming and splashing in cool, refreshing rivers, lakes and streams on scorching summer days. From stone skipping to tubing, canoeing and fishing, clean water is at the heart of summer fun. So you probably share my grief when reading headlines like this: “In farm country, tainted water is ‘just the way it is’” .

Just the way it is?” Yup. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, swimming and fishing in Edgerton, MN were declared off-limits due to water contaminated with farm chemicals. The article went on: “Creeks are unsafe for wading,” and “many streams are losing aquatic life.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. According to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report, farm chemical contamination is widespread.

For example, in 2012, American growers sprayed nearly 300 million pounds of glyphosate on their crops. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is used in almost all agricultural and urban areas of the United States, with the greatest use in the Mississippi River basin, where the chemical is applied to genetically-modified corn, soybeans and cotton. The herbicide is so prevalent, it’s even found in our rainwater.

Paul Capel, author of the USGS report, says: “Though glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, we know very little about its long term effects to the environment.”

However, we have good reason for concern about its effects to human health. Recently, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate a “probable carcinogen.”

In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel Report on reducing environmental cancer risks recommended filtering home tap or well water, and choosing foods that fit the organic profile: grown or produced without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones. The report recognized the toxic run-off from livestock feedlots, and warned that “children in particular are at special risk for cancer due to environmental contaminants.”

With the recent approval of new GMO crops resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D, the USDA anticipates 2,4-D use on GE corn and soybean crops will increase 1.75  to 3 times over its current use.

In addition to pesticides, water quality and safety is also threatened by nitrates, and the two often occur in tandem, according to Louis Guillette Jr., Ph.D., former director of the Marine Biomedicine and Environmental Sciences Center and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Guillette spoke at the 33rd National Pesticide Forum, held in Orlando, Fl this past spring, where he described how agricultural chemicals threaten our reproductive health. In some parts of the Midwest, nitrogen fertilizer application may range from 50 to 700 pounds per acre. “There is no way in the world plants can accumulate that amount of fertilizer in any reasonable way, which means most of it runs off….” explained Guillette.

In the U.S., nitrate level limits are set at 10 parts per million to prevent “blue baby syndrome” — a condition where nitrate is converted to nitrite, and reacts with hemoglobin in red blood cells, thereby reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to our cells. Guillette’s research shows that our “acceptable” level of nitrate is high enough to block steroid hormone production, such as testosterone.

In addition, nitrates in our drinking water also interfere with our bodies’ detoxification enzyme systems, Guillette explained, creating a “double whammy.”

Many farming communities accept environmental degradation in exchange for the perceived economic benefits of industrial agriculture. However, it’s hard to separate a healthy environment from a strong economy.

In the words of Robert Kennedy Jr., “There’s nothing radical about clean air and water… Good environmental policy is good economic policy; if we destroy nature, we impoverish ourselves.”

The good news is, we don’t have to make a sacrifice or a trade-off. Organic farming is good for our environment and our economy. Not only do organic farming methods protect our soil and water, but according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the U.S. consumer demand for organic food continues to grow, with demand outpacing domestic supply.

That spells more good clean jobs, safe food, and summer fun for all.


Learn more:

September 23, 2015: Free webinar on how organic farming protects water quality: http://www.conservationwebinars.net/webinars/environmental-benefits-of-organic-agriculture-water-quality

Lou Guillette on Food Sleuth Radio: https://beta.prx.org/stories/155172