How eating meat creates a ‘dead zone’ the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico every year

A wholesaler inspects beef carcasses that hang inside a refrigerated room at the Cibevial slaughterhouse in Corbas, France, May 4, 2016.

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A wholesaler inspects beef carcasses that hang inside a refrigerated room at the Cibevial slaughterhouse in Corbas, France, May 4, 2016.
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REUTERS/Robert Pratta

  • Eating meat contributes to an ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf Mexico, where sea life gets suffocated in a ‘”dead zone” the size of New Jersey.
  • Nutrient pollution from intensive agriculture washes into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River, causing phytoplankton blooms. As the phytoplankton decomposes, huge portions of the Gulf get starved of oxygen.
  • Beyond killing sea life, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone has disastrous ramifications for the area’s economic engine – its fisheries.

Of all the ways to help combat climate change and environmental degradation, cutting meat out of your diet – or at least reducing how much you eat – is probably one of the easiest, and most effective.

Beyond the greenhouse gas emissions and water usage associated with the production of beef, chicken, and other meats, there’s another, more sinister impact on the planet’s oceans: Your burger contributes to suffocating a huge swath of sea life in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a process called eutrophication, where agricultural runoff, including fertilizer and animal waste, gets dumped into rivers, and ends up the ocean. The runoff contains nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that are the essential building blocks of life.

And while ecosystems need a steady supply of these nutrients, too much can actually suffocate life by drastically lowering the amount of oxygen available – killing native species and making the entire area uninhabitable.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, mapped in 2017.

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The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, mapped in 2017.
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NOAA

The Mississippi River collects these nutrients in high quantities from Midwestern slaughterhouse and factory farms.

The main cause of the nutrient pollution isn’t the meat itself, but the huge amounts of corn and soy raised to actually feed the animals on factory farms. Thirty-six percent of corn raised in the US goes to feed chickens and cows used for meat, The New Republic reports.

When these nutrients are dumped in high quantities into the Gulf of Mexico, as snowmelt and spring rains engorge the river, it feeds algal growth and phytoplankton (microscopic plants) blooms. When these tiny organisms die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean. Bacteria on the seafloor devour the dead organisms, consuming tons of oxygen.

As the bacteria use up oxygen consuming the dead phytoplankton, the seafloor gets slowly suffocated. The different densities between the layers of cooler, saltier water on the seafloor, and warmer, fresher water on the surface (heated by the sun and increased runoff) in the spring and summer also prevent the Gulf waters from mixing, a process that brings oxygen back to replenish the seafloor.

At a certain point, oxygen levels get so low on the seafloor the area can no longer support any sort of life in a phenomenon called hypoxia, according to the Louisiana Marine Universities Consortium. Any sea creature that can evacuate – like larger fish, or even crabs that can swim or scuttle along the ocean floor – do, but everything else will eventually suffocate and die.

Every year, the Gulf of Mexico suffers from these hypoxic conditions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gulf of Mexico’s seasonal, hypoxic dead zone is the second-largest caused by humans worldwide. Slightly larger dead zones have previously been measured in Europe’s Baltic Sea, according to National Geographic.

Jacob Terrebone (L) from Houma, Louisiana helps Niki Lincoln load shrimp that they caught outside Houma into her truck in Venice, Louisiana May 2, 2010.

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Jacob Terrebone (L) from Houma, Louisiana helps Niki Lincoln load shrimp that they caught outside Houma into her truck in Venice, Louisiana May 2, 2010.
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REUTERS/Joe Mitchell

And it seems to be getting worse. In the summer of 2017, NOAA scientists measured the dead zone at 8,776 square miles, or approximately the size of New Jersey, which is the largest ever recorded. The previous record was set in 2002, when the dead zone stretched for 8,497 square miles.

Beyond killing the fish already in the area, scientists say the dead zones can impact fish and shrimp stocks for generations – and by extension, the Gulf of Mexico’s economy.

The dead zone slows shrimp growth, according to a study from Duke University, leading to fewer large shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico fishery. This actually drives up the price of shrimp, affecting the region’s fishing economy – one of the most valuable in the US – as well as consumers.

The EPA has set up a Gulf Hypoxia Task Force to try and bring the dead zone down to less than 1,900 square miles by 2035, according to the agency’s 2017 report to Congress.

There’s a long way to go, but the best way you can help is to eat less meat.