I was in New Orleans recently with the intention of savoring the food as much as to partake of friends and family. I set about on a culinary expedition of the Cajun-bayou kind mixed up with great helpings of French influence. The food was rich and plentiful, southern soul steeped in Louis X1V sauces. Fried chicken, okra, sausage and crawfish all graced my palate and plate.
Thus I debauched at the bottom of the mighty Mississippi, a land of plenty where the nation’s corn-basket spills out upon an ancient delta rife with issues. So I pondered… How is it that my food and the Gulf of Mexico are intrinsically connected?
The food is good in New Orleans
If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you’re missing out on a culinary heritage quite unique in North America. Its multicultural roots stretch from 1718 when the French displaced the Chitimacha, to the Spaniards, Haitians, Creoles and Africans who flocked in waves to this thriving port. The result is a panoply of exotic treats such as thick gumbos strewn with seafood, chicken, okra or sausage. Thus I was easily led astray by the overstuffed Po-Boys, sugary beignets and spicy jambalaya. My final culinary debauchery consisted of oyster a la Rockefeller followed by crusty soft-shelled crab, with a final thrust of Bananas Foster.
I retired to my room in a digestive torpor and took note of this headline: “New Jersey-Size ‘Dead Zone’ Is Largest Ever in Gulf of Mexico.”
The waters in the Gulf are not so great
As good as the food is, the state of the place is not. While I carried on in a glutinous fashion, the waters that make up the adjoining Gulf of Mexico were literally starving from lack of oxygen.
Dead zones are caused by excess agricultural nutrients such as nitrates and fertilizers that feed harmful algae. The algae grow, decompose and sink in the water consuming all the oxygen leaving little or none available to other marine life.
The Gulf of Mexico is the end of the line of the agricultural artery, the mighty Mississippi. This spring many earnest, hard-working conventional farmers fertilized their crops as record rains gushed forth to calf a Dead Zone 8,776 square miles in diameter. New Jersey this is not!
Our food and our waters are connected
According to preliminary reports, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 165,000 metric tons of nitrate or 2,800 train cars of fertilizer, and 22,600 metric tons of phosphorus flowed down the Mississippi this May. With it the king mackerel, red drum and spotted sea trout swam off to healthier waters, the worms and crabs at the bottom simply perished.
The many thousands of acres of crops that grow in the heartland end up as feed or ingredients in our food, the buttery fried chicken, the saucy jambalaya, even in the sugar topping my Bananas Foster. Agricultural production and its byproducts create havoc not only in the Gulf but in the Great Lakes and the East Coast—no water is immune from this mounting aquatic peril.
The manner in which we produce our food is directly connected to the health of our waters.
Organic agriculture can clean up our act
Organic farmers do not use conventional synthetic fertilizers; it’s simply not allowed. Instead, they compost and plant cover crops; they spread manure, seaweed and minerals. These inputs are less soluble and less likely to run off into the water. Organic agricultural practices create healthy living soil teaming with biological life, soil that holds water embracing it slowly as it percolates gently through the ground.
It’s no surprise that the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s publication Organic Farming for Health & Prosperity found organic farming to be the only land management scenario that would reduce, rather than increase, nitrogen loading into the water. If we increase organic agriculture, we can transform the dead zones into living, breathing, thriving Life Zones.
All rivers flow into the sea
As I look back at my Louisiana culinary escapade, I realize my lust for exotic tastes took hold of my better judgment. Heretofore wherever my taste buds lead me, I will always question “where is the organic Muffuletta, fried chicken or Crawfish Etouffee?”
If we change the way we eat, then we change the way we farm—everywhere not just in New Orleans… because all rivers eventually flow into the sea.
As the British science fiction writer, and undersea explorer, Sir Arthur Charles Clarke once said, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean.”
Let us feed ourselves and the ocean well.