How Eating Organic Can Prevent Toxic Algae Blooms
Toxic algae blooms – like the one that is suffocating Florida beaches this summer – are increasingly occurring. Florida’s outbreak has caused Governor Rick Scott to issue a state of emergency in four counties. This came after a sampling of waters from the St. Lucie River came in positive for algal toxins.
If you’ve seen any of the images of Florida or other algal bloom locations, you’ll see it isn’t pretty. Dark green algae growth is mixed with brown sludge. It chokes practically every form of sea life that comes into its contact. This massive bloom has closed a number of Florida beaches, including the tourist-dependent Treasure Coast.
Florida is not the only victim of these massive toxic blooms. In 2014, a massive toxic algae bloom hit Lake Erie, suffocating fish and other creatures – and sickening people. Bottled water was issued. The Lake Erie bloom continued into 2015 and there is a great potential for another outbreak this summer. The bloom has extended through the Western side of Lake Erie, and connects with Lake St. Claire and Lake Huron.
In 2015, another large harmful algal bloom (abbreviated HAB) has stretched from the Central Coast of California all the way up to Alaska. This massive bloom of algae produces a neurotoxin that was responsible for massive die-offs of shellfish and fish species up and down the California-Oregon-Washington coast. This bloom also killed at least 30 whales.
Chesapeake Bay has also been hit by toxic algal blooms in recent years, which have found their way to many of surrounding inland waters.
What are toxic algal blooms?
They are a massive growth of either a phytoplankton or single-celled cyanobacteria – also called blue-green algae – though some species are reddish or brown in color as they bloom.
An algae bloom typically occurs in a body of water. It could be a large or a small body of water. When the algal bloom intensifies into a large inland sea or ocean, this is considered a massive algal bloom.
A massive outbreak will concentrate millions of algae cells per milliliter of water. This will effectively suffocate many species of marine life because the algae will use up much of the available oxygen in the water. This is called anoxia – the depletion of oxygen within a column of water.
Many species of algae also produce toxins. These toxins can kill many species of marine life. They can also harm humans – which is why the Governor of Florida issued a state emergency.
Depending upon the species, some algal blooms are called red tides, brown tides or green tides. These are loose terms describing how the bloom looks at different concentrations and environments. Even some blue-green cyanobacteria blooms may be called red or green tides.
Yes, many species of blue-green algae are healthful and do not cause toxicity. But some produce neurotoxins, including the Microcystis species, which produces the microcystin toxin or the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia species that has bloomed up and down the Pacific Coast, which produces the toxin domoic acid.
Other locations around the world will produce different blooms of different algal species. South Africa blooms are often caused by Alexandrium catanella. A toxic algal bloom that occurred a couple of years ago in Texas was produced by Karenia brevis bacteria. And a recent Louisiana toxic algal bloom was a combination of Microcystis species and Anabaena species.
Florida blooms will include the brown tide Aureoumbra lagunensis, but other recent Florida blooms have included Caulerpa species of bacteria.
Aren’t these natural?
Yes, the algae species are naturally-occurring. But the extent of their massive blooms is not natural. These are caused by human activity.
Look at the map below. The top map shows massive algae blooms in 1970 and the bottom one shows algae blooms in 2015. Notice the massive outbreak of these algae blooms over the past 45 years.
Yes, there were a few algal blooms on the West coast of the U.S. in 1970. We’ll discuss this below.
These massive outbreaks of algal blooms were practically unheard of in previous centuries. There are a few recorded instances of algal blooms in small bodies of water near urban centers. But these are nothing compared to these massive outbreaks.
What’s causing all these toxic algae blooms?
Just about every massive toxic algae bloom in recent decades is linked to runoff from farms. The Lake Erie bloom occurred as a result of farm runoff into the Maumee River, which winds through farms in Indiana and Ohio.
The Florida algal bloom occurred because of a growth of algae in Lake Okeechobee, fed by runoff from nearby factory farms. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from the lake to prevent flooding. The release went into nearby rivers and the ocean.
This goes for most other algal blooms as well. In some – for example, the Chesapeake Bay bloom, factory animal farms caused much of the runoff.
For those rare blooms that haven’t been directly related to runoff, there is indirect evidence for a combination of warming oceans and runoff. This is the case for the Pacific Ocean bloom – shown in the 1970 map above.
In this case, runoff from the San Francisco Bay has been suspected. The Central Valley of California is a massive farming and industrial region. Central valley California has been known as the salad and fruit bowl of the world. And these farms will spill runoffs into canals that will eventually make their way to the San Francisco Bay.
The reason algal blooms go nuts from farming runoffs is because of chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers are rich in phosphates and nitrogen.
Remember that chemical fertilizers are intended to significantly boost plant growth. This is what nitrogen and phosphates do.
Algae are related to plants in that they utilize photosynthesis for energy. They also use the nutrients available in the water to boost their growth – just as plants use these nutrients from the soil.
And just as plants that are fertilized with excess nitrogen and phosphates grow quickly – so do algae.
Why the answer is organic farming
The first reason is that organic fertilizers have a natural balance of nutrients. They aren’t jacked up with so much excess nitrogen and phosphates. Yes, organic fertilizers do contain nitrogen and phosphates. But they also contain tons of other nutrients, which creates a more balance of nutrition.
This means that the plants will utilize more of the organic fertilizer. This leaves far less excess nitrogen and phosphorus to runoff out of the soil.
Conventional agricultural proponents will argue that organic fertilizer can still cause blooms and factory animal farms are testament to that.
However, what they are missing is that organic agriculture also produces less runoff in general, because the soil is more complete. A more complete soil will contain lots of earthworms and nematodes. These will keep the soil more dense and less sandy – producing less runoff when it rains or it is watered. They also utilize these nutrients themselves – again leaving less to runoff.
Organic farms also nourish bacteria called rhizobia that help plants fix nitrogen. These and other bacteria in the soil also help utilize and convert these nutrients before they have a chance to runoff.
This is all part of soil stewardship – a program that is required by organic farmers in order to obtain certification for their organic farm. Soil stewardship sometimes means that crops have to be rotated on fields, or some fields are left fallow (nothing growing on it) for a season. These strategies produce healthier soil and healthier plants – all of which reduce soil runoff.
Factory conventional farms wear the soil out, increasing run-off. They apply chemical sprays that kill off many of the beneficial nematodes, worms, bacteria and fungi. Factory conventional farms are basically nuking our farmlands. This is why runoff rates have gone crazy over the past few years. They spray chemicals and apply chemical fertilizers that basically kill off all the factors that sustain the soil.
An organic farm is an altogether different proposition. While an organic farm can be just as large as a factory farm, because organic farming requires technologies geared towards sustaining soil and sustaining a balance of life – there is far less runoff, and far less nutrient runoff.
What about animal farms?
Factory animal farming is another producer of toxic algae blooms, as mentioned above. These farms will spew out feces waste in proportions that far exceed a natural environment. This is because the animals in these farms are packed into overcrowded quarters.
This means very small cages or pens. Not only is this cruel: This means more feces per foot, so to speak, than any natural setting would produce.
Organic animal production requires that the animals are allowed to roam through their natural environment. This means they have a little turf to not only walk around, but more space to poop. This means the farm is not shoveling shit by the truckload.
Organic is not only healthier to eat
In several articles we have published the research showing that organic foods are more nutritious than conventional foods. Here are other articles on organic foods from this publication.
Now we can add to this obvious advantage the reality that if we converted all our agriculture to organic, the prevalence of these massive algae blooms would be massively reduced.
But can we really make such a big change? It starts where and how we shop. And with each of us.
REFERENCES AND MORE INFO:
K. A. Langeland and C. C. Jacono. Common Aquatic Plants of Lake Okeechobee: Identification, Value, and Management. University of Florida. Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants – University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Accessed July 5, 2016
Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. Accessed July 5, 2016.
NOAA. West Coast Harmful Algal Bloom. May 2016. Accessed July 5, 2016
US Environmental Protection Agency. Algal Blooms: Causes and Prevention. Accessed July 5, 2016
Scientists Work to Predict and Prevent Algae Blooms. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Accessed July 5, 2016
Distribution of HABs throughout the World. Harmful Algae. WHOI. Accessed July 5, 2016
Fritz A. Lake Erie is in the midst of yet another dangerous, disgusting algae outbreak. Washington Post. August 7, 2015. Accessed July 5, 2016
BBC News. Toxic algae bloom causes Florida state of emergency. July 5, 2016.