It will be years before some parts of the Midwest recover from record floods and already the damage is pushing up the price of corn and soybeans, deepening the world's food crises.
Now comes news that the flooding in significant part can be blamed on man's imprint on the land. Plowing prairies into croplands, diverting streams and waterways, developing wetlands, farming too close to rivers--all this human alteration of the landscape has turned places like Iowa into washboards where heavy rains turn into floods instead of percolating into the soil.
"I sense that the flooding is not the result of a 500-year event," said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We're farming closer to creeks, farming closer to rivers. Without adequate buffer strips, the water moves rapidly from the field directly to the surface water."
With the federal government encouraging farmers to grow even more corn to make ethanol, lands previously reserved for conservation are being plowed under as well.
Between 2007 and 2008, farmers took 106,000 acres of Iowa land out of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep farmland uncultivated, according to Lyle Asell, a special assistant for agriculture and environment with the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That land, if left untouched, probably would have been covered with perennial grasses with deep roots that help absorb water.
Besides having a huge mess to clean up and tens of thousands of people homeless, Iowans now are worried about what may have gotten into their drinking water.
A huge swath of territory from the Dakotas down to Ohio was losing fertilizer applied to the soil at a rate of 4 percent each day. Heavy snowfalls and an early snowmelt also was contributing huge amounts of amonia from the region's giant hog feedlots. Some 70 cities draw their drinking water from the Mississippi River. At the mouth of the river, researchers even before the flooding began were finding nitrate levels spilling into the Gulf of Mexico 37 percent higher than last year--and that was the highest since records began in 1970.
Fertilizer runoff creates a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico about the size of New Jersey. This year promises to be bigger than ever.
It may be too long ago for most farmers to remember, but growing crops used to be more environmentally friendly. One of the methods farmers used to increase fertility and save the soil was crop rotation. That went out the window with artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides (and look at the results).
Now, with growing demand for organic produce, researchers are taking a second look at natural methods of growing grains, including crop rotation. Tests are underway at the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, MD, just a few miles ouside the nation's capital.
With concerns about agricultural runoff, the rise in food prices and projections of global food shortages, the work is considered more important than ever. "More and more, people are looking for the best way to grow grain crops organically," said researcher Michel Cavigelli.
Cavigelli recently published findings showing the longer the rotational cycle for corn, the more corn produced. Rotating corn, soybeans and wheat over four or more years - and adding hay to the cycle in late summer - increased corn yields by up to 30 percent, compared with a standard two-year cycle, he said.
Any chance of this getting back to farmers in Iowa?
If it's not corn, it's tomatoes. Federal officials are still trying to figure out where the salmonell-infected tomatoes that have made hundreds of people sick came from. At the center of the search is the hapless federal food safety watchdog, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The salmonella outbreak in tomatoes comes just months after the FDA released a "food protection plan" that was, in the words of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, "a strategy of prevention, intervention and response to build safety into every step of the food supply chain."
But now the Government Accountability Office reports that since announcing its plan, the FDA really hasn't done very much. Says the GAO:
"Since FDA’s Food Protection Plan was first released in November 2007, FDA has added few details on the resources and strategies required to implement the plan. FDA plans to spend about $90 million over fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to implement several key actions, such as identifying food vulnerabilities and risk. From the information GAO has obtained on the Food Protection Plan, however, it is unclear what FDA’s overall resource need is for implementing the plan, which could be significant. For example, based on FDA estimates, if FDA were to inspect each of the approximately 65,500 domestic food firms regulated by FDA once, the total cost would be approximately $524 million."
There's plenty of blame to go around, however. The Bush administration as well as Congress have long known that the agency responsible for the safety of the nation's food supply is in tatters. One begins to wonder how many poison outbreaks and meat recalls it will take before our federal government will do anything about it.
Oh, and the taint of human activity has a mighty long reach. Scientists are now discovering man-made pollutants in deep-sea squid and octopi.
In a study to be published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers report finding a variety of chemical contaminants in nine species of cephalopods, a class of organisms that includes octopods, squids, cuttlefishes and nautiluses.
"It was surprising to find measurable and sometimes high amounts of toxic pollutants in such a deep and remote environment," said one of the study's authors, Michael Vecchione of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admistation's Fisheries' National Systematics Laboratory. Among the chemicals detected were tributyltin (TBT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs), and dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT).
The really bad news for sea creatures is that these toxins are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they don't degrade but remain in the environment for a very long time.
Cephalopods are important to the diet of cetaceans, a class of marine mammals which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Recent studies have reported the accumulation of POPs in the blubber and tissues of whales and other predatory marine mammals as well as in some deep-sea fish. Other investigators had speculated that the pollutants in marine mammals had resulted from feeding on contaminated squids.
Fried calamari, anyone?
Meanwhile, more and more of Alaska's prized chinook salmon--aka King salmon--are being infected with something commonly called "Ich" that turns the fish mealy and stinky and is being attributed to global warming.
As much as 30 percent of the salmon catch is being tossed aside as inedible because of the infection.
"Ich" stands for a microscopic parasite called Ichthyophonus hoferi. Ich (pronounced "ick") is a well-known disease, harmless to humans, that was blamed for devastating losses in the herring fishery in Scandinavia. A similar parasite can infect aquarium fish.
The emergence of disease in Alaska's most prized salmon has come as a shock to fishermen and fisheries managers. Alaskan wild salmon has been an uncommon success story among over-exploited fisheries, with healthy runs and robust catches that fetch ever higher prices at fish markets and high-end restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and London.
But then infected salmon started showing up in the state's spawning grounds, their flesh and organs mottled with telltale spots. The disease is being linked to rising temperatures in the spawning waters, such as the Yukon River.
As temperatures rise, "Ich" moves in. It's the kind of redistribution of disease that can be expected with climate change, said Richard M. Kocan, a fish disease expert at the University of Washington.
"Everything is getting warmer, and that's how climate change is going to redistribute all kinds of disease," Kocan said. "Parasites have their optimum conditions -- upper and lower limits. We'll notice where they show up but not necessarily where they disappear."
Some experts fear that salmon in the Pacific Northwest will go extinct unless something is done to cool the warming spawning waters.
And that brings us to jellyfish. If you're a swimmer, you want to avoid these transluscent blobs because of their stinging tentacles. Here around the Chesapeake Bay, certain seasons seem to bring hordes of the slimy creatures, making swimming impossible.
Now scientists see a dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world as being driven by overfishing and climate change, a sure sign of ecosystems out of whack.
"Jellyfish are an excellent bellwether for the environment," explains Jacqueline Goy, of the Oceanographic Institute of Paris. "The more jellyfish, the stronger the signal that something has changed."
In the Mediterranean, exploding numbers or jellyfish have devastated native marine species and threaten seaside tourism. Two centuries worth of data shows that jellyfish populations naturally swell every 12 years, remain stable four or six years, and then subside. This year, however, will be the eighth consecutive year that medusae, as they are also known, will be present in massive numbers.
Overfishing of other species creates room for jellyfish to prosper. Scientists were not surprised to find a huge surge in the number of jellyfish off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic, one of the most intensely fished oceans in the world.
Warmer ocean temperatures prolong reproduction cycles. Put it all together and you get oceans full of jellyfish.