Worldwide Conference Addresses Agricultural Pollution of Freshwater Resources

Maintaining water quality and growing enough food to feed our booming population are apparently mutually exclusive. The way modern farming is done to maximize production using chemical soil additives and pesticides is in direct conflict with keeping our dwindling freshwater resources clean enough for human consumption. Fertilizers such as nitrogen are sprayed on crops to increase yields, but with rain, chemicals wash away soils and rivers, lakes and streams. A question asked at the recent World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden, asked how we can increase production while minimizing water pollution.

In the past, U.S. congressmen paid farmers to avoid growing crops on land that was most prone to currents. But because the government was in deep debt, Congress cut back on these repayment programs to help with the goal of budget control. At the same time, their decisions seriously affect water quality problems caused by agricultural runoff. Farmers, without being paid for not using the land, cultivate the fields to increase their income to previous levels.

Another agricultural practice that negatively affects water resources in the world is animal husbandry. Forage crops, which must be produced to feed large numbers of cattle, pigs and other livestock, account for more than 8% of all water use. In addition, animal waste, grazing deposits, antibiotics and hormones overused to increase animal weight, and chemical runoff from tanneries have a significant impact on the quality of the water allowed to drain. In the US, forage crops account for 37% of pesticides as well as a third of the nitrogen waste found in our water supplies, while livestock themselves need 50% of all antibiotics used.

Before the population explosion, it wasn’t necessary to grow that much food, farmers didn’t use all the chemicals and feed so many animals, and our water sources looked clean and plentiful. That’s not the story anymore, and it’s in the interest of holding conferences like the one in Stockholm to bring the world together to tackle the clean water problem that affects us all. Real solutions may not emerge immediately, but at least the information gathered and shared ideas show us the right way.

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