Fertilizing Catastrophe

From sinkholes to burgers: Florida’s latest environmental disaster and your next meal

Florida sinkhole produced by phosphate ore mining to make fertilizer.

Sinkholes. The environmental cost of meat and dairy production, like climate change, wildlife extinction, water pollution and habitat loss, now includes massive sinkholes. In breaking news this month, it was announced that a colossal stack of radioactive waste, hundreds of feet tall, dumped 215 million gallons of contaminated water into Florida’s largest aquifer. The sinkhole at the heart of this breach comes from a New Wales strip mine owned by the fertilizer corporation Mosaic — a company that waited weeks to publicly disclose its radioactive contamination of Florida drinking water.

The American diet depends on phosphate fertilizer for nearly all the crops we grow — most of which go to feed livestock. In fact, more than half of the corn produced in the U.S. becomes livestock feed crop. With 12 pounds of grains needed to fatten just one pound of beef meat production is a highly inefficient use of crops and the resources that go into growing them. In other words, our super-sized appetite for burgers and chicken nuggets is driving the unsustainable and toxic extraction of phosphorous ore to make fertilizer.

The Center for Biological Diversity collected shocking aerial footage that documents this sinkhole and the environmental impacts of phosphate mining. The Center’s expert on phosphate mining, Jacki Lopez, has called this catastrophe “Florida’s dirty little secret.”

Until the 1950s crops were fertilized with compost or phosphorous-rich manure. As is the American way, we found a way to get phosphorous quicker, cheaper and easier, but with an enormous environmental cost. In addition to radioactive waste, the production process leaves cancer-causing radon gas in the air.

Phosphate mining pollutes the planet from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the lands we live on — but not just for us, for all the diverse wildlife living in these regions too. As Mother Jones’s Tom Philpott noted, a great deal of fertilized phosphate is not absorbed by crops and ends up polluting our waterways and creating dead zones in wild habitats.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can take action immediately by putting less pressure and demand on the production process by eating less meat. And we need to start today because phosphate is a finite resource. When we run out, we will find ourselves with polluted water sources and wild places destroyed beyond repair, and without a viable, sustainable way of producing food.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Take Extinction Off Your Plate campaign shows we can make positive environmental impacts every day by modifying our diet. If every American replaced one chicken-based dish with one plant-based dish per week, it would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking 500,000 cars off the road. Meanwhile, the wild animals we share the planet with are currently facing the sixth major extinction crisis. If there’s ever been a time to eat less meat and save more wildlife, this is it.

Mosaic wants to mine an additional 50,000 acres in bio-diverse habitats in Florida which is the largest phosphate producing state in the U.S. Phosphate mining has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in that state. As our global population grows exponentially, we must make fundamental changes to our food systems in a way that is truly sustainable for today and for tomorrow. Help us urge our political leaders to stop the expansion of phosphate mining in Florida and instead create a more sustainable food system.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.