Why Fracking is the Next Big Threat Facing Organic Agriculture
The controversial oil and gas mining technique known as fracking, may pose a significant threat to the future of U.S. organic agriculture, according to an analysis conducted by researchers from the FracTracker Alliance, and published in March 2015.
That analysis found that 11 percent of all North American organic farms lie in areas affected by fracking, and that this number is likely to increase to between 15 and 31 percent if the industry continues to expand. Due to fracking’s high levels of water use and contamination, and its potentially destructive impact on the soil organic agriculture depends upon, this could be a major blow to the growing organics industry.
Thousands of farms affected
The researchers compiled a database of all 19,515 farms certified by the USDA National Organic Program, and plotted them onto a map. They then compared these with maps of oil and gas exploration regions.
The researchers found that a total of 183 farms are in the “core” area (located within one mile of fracking wells), 455 are in the “intermediate” area (within three miles), and 752 are in the “periphery” (within five miles, or within areas classified as “Regions of Concern” for future fracking).
The researchers then conducted a further analysis to identify which sub-watersheds and watersheds are most likely to be affected by fracking (from the mining itself, from its water use, or from the injection of toxic chemicals back into the ground). They found that there are 1,319 within the periphery plus sub-watershed regions. When this is expanded to include the watershed region, the number goes up to 2,140, or 11 percent of all organic farms in North America. This represents the total number of organic farms in U.S. Shale Plays.
If oil and gas extraction continues to expand as it has been, the researchers predict that the proportion of organic farms in Shale Plays will likely climb to 15 percent. This includes 2,912 organic farms, supplying crops (2,044), livestock (918) and wild foods (41).
This degree of increase would see 31 percent of all U.S. organic farms located within U.S. shale basins, including farms in the major crop-producing states of California, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Adding in tight gas basins would add another 2,754 organic farms (14 percent).
Poisoning water, destroying soil
Just how big of a threat is fracking to organic farming? It’s well established that fracking consumes enormous quantities of water, placing it in direct competition with agriculture for use of that resource. In addition, fracking is a major polluter of groundwater, thereby removing even further water from suitability for agricultural use.
But it’s fracking’s effect on soil that makes it a threat to organic farming in particular. That’s because organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers or other soil amendments, and are therefore dependent upon healthy soil.
“There is no more important variable to the organic farmer sans freshwater than soil quality and diversity,” writes Ted Auch, PhD, of FracTracker Alliance.
The analysis found that the impacts of fracking are disproportionately concentrated in the soils of highest value to agriculture, particularly the Prairie-Forest Transition soils of the Great Lakes and Plains, and the Carbon-Rich Grasslands of the Great Plains.
The other major soil type likely to be threatened by future oil and gas extraction is wetland soils. These soils, Auch notes, “are crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystem services, wildlife migration, agricultural productivity, and the capture and storage of greenhouse gases.” Fracking in these areas would damage them beyond repair.
The damaging of soils by fracking is already a topic of concern for the agricultural industry, and was the subject of a session at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s (OEFFA) 2015 conference. FracTracker Alliance has received a grant from the Hoover Foundation to study the problem further.
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