Cover Crops May Be a Growing Problem for Clean Water

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Cover crops may reduce the need for nitrogen-based fertilizer, but terminating growth with herbicides increases phosphorus pollution and damages the soil
  • Overuse of nitrogen fertilizers triggered an open letter to the United Nations from 150 international scientists calling for regulations to reduce nitrogen pollution
  • As the U.S. pulls out of global treaties aimed at pollution control, Big Ag promotes an agenda that is triggering devastating droughts and floods
  • Researchers find glyphosate contributes to phosphorus pollution. In combination with nitrogen overload, these extra nutrients are feeding dangerous algae blooms
  • You can protect your health and the local environment by sourcing as much of your food as possible from local regenerative farmers who use diverse, organic processes

Animal waste and fertilizer runoff are two large contributors to water pollution, yet Big Ag has consistently turned a blind eye to the resulting devastating climate effects on their own industry. As this short video demonstrates, rising concentrations of nitrogen in the water feeds algae and chokes the oxygen supply to wildlife, creating expansive dead zones.

In addition to an impact on fish and wildlife, climate change is being blamed for record-setting rain in the Midwest in 2019. Croplands were so ravaged by water that farmers were forced to delay planting corn. Typically, 96% of croplands would have been planted by June,1 but in corn-heavy states like Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, the rates were as low as 31%, 33% and 45% respectively.2

Nutrients are naturally found in watersheds. This is called the "background" concentration. Rising concentrations of nutrients such as nitrate, ammonia, total nitrogen and phosphorus are the result of fertilizer and animal manure runoff. With increasing rainfall the runoff becomes a larger environmental problem, leading to negative health and environmental outcomes.

The problem of higher levels of nutrients in the waterways is a far-reaching concern. Fertilizer byproducts, significant contributors to water pollution, were found to have elevated concentrations in more than 90% of 190 streams in agricultural and urban areas sampled by the U.S. Geological Survey.3

The Center for Public Integrity published an in-depth report in which they used research studies and historical documents to develop an argument I've written about over the years: Agricultural damage by industrial farms has a considerable negative impact on the environment.4

Fertilizer: An Underrated and Growing Environmental Threat

The current leading ozone-depleting gas is nitrous oxide, a byproduct of nitrogen-based fertilizer. This type of fertilizer is liberally applied to farmlands throughout the U.S., but America has either not joined or is pulling out of global treaties to bring about reductions in air and water pollution.

Historically, these treaties have been fruitful. For instance, the 1987 Montreal Protocol proved successful at setting limits on most ozone-depleting substances, although it did not address nitrogen.

The massive impact of nitrates on the environment and human health has been noticed around the world. More than 150 scientists from 35 countries stress the necessity of limiting the use of nitrogen in agriculture and wastewater processes. This is because nearly 80% of the nitrogen will enter the environment as pollution.5

In an open letter to António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, they urge global action, saying: "If we want to beat climate change, air pollution, water pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and stratospheric ozone depletion, then a new focus on nitrogen will be vital."

An unfortunate and dangerous consequence is the exposure to thousands of nitrates in the water supply. In January 2020, the Environmental Working Group6 reported that water testing results from the past decade showed nitrate exposures for an estimated 500,000 people living in Minnesota were at or above levels that mark rising contamination.

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Nitrogen Plays a Significant Role in Water Pollution

The safe limits of nitrates in the water supply were set to protect infants from blue baby syndrome, which decreases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen.7 WHO reports the condition is rare due to nitrate contamination control.

The Clean Water Act limits nitrate in drinking water to 10 mg per liter (mg/L). However, research indicates that levels close to 5 mg/L are linked to birth defects8 and colorectal, ovarian, thyroid and kidney cancers.9

These levels are only likely to rise with the relaxation of 2015 regulations that prohibit the release of certain chemicals near streams, wetlands and other bodies of water.10 The regulatory changes will affect future decisions on water laws as it narrows the definition the Supreme Court may use to define "the waters of the United States."

Administrations under George W. Bush and Barack Obama resisted exemptions for greenhouse gas emissions reports on large animal farms, but the Trump administration has not. The Trump administration has also placed fewer pollution restrictions on farmers. Patrick Parenteau, environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, comments on the part industrial farmers' play in clean water:

"For conservative states and leaders who hold the view that the Clean Water Act has become burdensome for farmers and the industry, 'this is an opportunity to really drive a stake through the heart of federal water protection.'"

Cover Crops Reduce Fertilizer Use and Nitrogen Pollution

As discussed in the video above, cover crops demonstrate the ability to protect the watershed, reduce pollution and protect topsoil. The reporter for the Center for Public Integrity aptly describes the actions of one common cover crop, rye:

"Rye is a time-release nitrogen sponge. As it grows, the rye sops up excess nitrogen before it escapes into the air or water. After the rye dies and decomposes, bacteria squeeze the nitrogen back into the soil, fertilizing later crops. Cover crops are also a magnet for microorganisms that process nitrogen into fertilizer, and they have other benefits, from preventing soil erosion to smothering weeds."

This all boils down to being able to apply less fertilizer to achieve the same results, while protecting the soil and improving soil biodiversity. Cover crops are planted after harvest of the primary crop, to protect the soil through the winter months. Once spring arrives the cover crop must be terminated to make way for the next primary crop on the land.

The Iowa State University Extension Outreach discusses three options farmers use to terminate their cover crops, including crimping, tilling and the application of glyphosate.11 Glyphosate has been12 "invaluable to no-tillers in North America and overseas as an inexpensive, effective tool for not only killing weeds but also terminating cover crops ahead of or after planting," according to No-Till Farmer.

Rolling or roller-crimping is an effective alternative to the application of herbicides for hairy vetch, barley or cereal rye. While tilling the ground is an option, most cover crops require multiple passes to fully terminate the crop, which increases the risk of erosion and negates the health benefits to the soil of planting cover crops.

Nitrogen Overload Predicted Decades Ago

Parts of the Midwest have experienced swings through heavy droughts and flooding that experts attribute to climate change. James Galloway, environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, commented on the extent of nitrogen pollution:

"People make four to five times more reactive nitrogen than natural, terrestrial processes. And on a global scale, it's just showed no signs of stopping."

Nitrous oxide levels began accelerating in the atmosphere in 2009, potentially compounded by rising levels. It also has happened more quickly than was predicted by the United Nations. Two of the dangers associated with this hazardous greenhouse gas is that it depletes the ozone layer and has a life span of more than 100 years.

In 1973 the EPA acknowledged agriculture was a major source of nitrogen pollution that required regulation to protect the planet. They wrote: "All known trends appear to be ones that can be managed and kept within control, if appropriate steps are taken now."

But, as history has revealed, no real steps were taken, and air and water damage has continued to worsen. In a 2019 study published in Nature, scientists wrote:13

"We show that reduced air quality resulting from maize production is associated with 4,300 premature deaths annually in the United States, with estimated damages in monetary terms of US$39 billion (range: US$14-64 billion)."

The rate farmers are using nitrogen fertilizer is 40 times greater than 75 years ago, which far exceeds the rate of population growth. EPA science advisers have been recommending controlling the use and release of nitrogen since the early years of the agency's conception, but without success.

Instead, oversight has been handled by authorities who recommend voluntary self-regulation and cooperation. This has resulted in an industry that has escaped health and safety regulations enforced for other chemicals.

Researchers Discover New Concern With Glyphosate

Research published in early 2019 from McGill University showed glyphosate brings devastating consequences to the watershed and its environmental impact has been overlooked. Most research related to glyphosate has been focused on how poisonous it is.

However, this recent study is focused on the risk associated with glyphosate's contribution to phosphorus levels.14

The use of phosphorus-based fertilizer has saturated the soil, increasing the potential that any added phosphorus will run off into the waterways. Regulations limiting phosphorus have been aimed at fertilizers, which are some of the largest artificial sources.

However, phosphorus contributions are beginning to add up with a fifteenfold increase in the use of glyphosate over the past two decades. The team concluded that "glyphosate use can no longer be disregarded in monitoring and managing phosphorus levels in areas where the herbicide is used extensively."

Results from an earlier study15 published in 2016 revealed that Lake Erie's toxic algae blooms were due in part to phosphorus from glyphosate. Researchers thought a no-till method used with genetically modified Roundup Ready crops actually increased the use of herbicides and thus the potential it was a factor in algae growth.

Ohio Northern University's Christopher Spiese expressed concerned about the expansive impact of the problem, too: "For every acre of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans that you plant, it's about one-third pound of phosphorus coming down the Maumee ... "

Big Agriculture Is Calling the Shots

The agricultural industry has a financial interest in keeping things the way they are. While some large animal operations may need environmental permits, farmers are not subject to "EPA monitoring, testing and corrective enforcement applied to factories and other industrial sites."

The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes any laws requiring greenhouse gas emission reporting and any adoption of legislation that increases costs to farmers. Their argument is based on the plight of the farmer rather than the big picture of how farming practices may impact the environment and long-term health.

Protect Your Local Environment — Buy From Regenerative Farms

Shopping smart to make the best food choices for you and your family sends a message to Big Ag. Although they want you to think they control your behavior, remember that it's you who holds the power when it comes to food choices.

There is strong growth in the global organic and grass fed sectors that proves that by working together toward the same goal, we can make a difference. Seek out your food from a local farmer who uses diverse methods to promote regenerative agriculture. Consider joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program where you buy a "share" of vegetables produced by the farm.

The application of glyphosate and the devastating effects of nitrogen and phosphorus are three issues related to a larger chemical problem. Seek to adopt preventive strategies to reduce your exposure to the toxic chemical pollution that assaults your health.

You'll find a list of trustworthy sites with resources to find non-GMO food in your area at "Regenerative Farming: Restoring Soil Health and Saving Americans From Cancer, Chronic Disease."