Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Whenever I travel outside of Minnesota, the people I meet often comment on the state’s 10,000 lakes. I like to inform them that, contrary to popular belief, Minnesota actually has nearly 12,000 lakes. And those lakes are the heart and soul of Minnesota living. I will never forget the moment I first dipped my toes into Lake Superior, or when our family dog took his first-ever swim in White Bear Lake, or the times I’ve kayaked the glorious chain of lakes in Minneapolis.
Minnesotans treasure these natural resources and the memories they help make, but few realize that industrial animal agriculture is threatening these precious spaces.
A growing body of research raises serious concerns about the quality of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and even drinking water. A 2020 Environmental Working Group (EWG) study found that the dramatic expansion of livestock farming threatens water quality in almost all of Minnesota’s farm counties. Another EWG study, also from this year, shows that 63% of county water facilities across the state experienced significantly worsening contamination levels between 1995 and 2018. This rise in Minnesota’s water contamination runs parallel to the tripling population of its farmed animals since the 1990s. According to a state agency report, 40 percent of Minnesota lakes and rivers fail to meet basic water quality standards. Both of the EWG investigations implicate animal agriculture’s growth in our state as a primary cause of increasing water degradation.
Pollutants enter Minnesota’s water in many ways, but the main source is industrial agriculture. Eighty million pigs, cows, turkeys, and chickens are held in Minnesota’s 1,000-plus factory farms. Massive quantities of these animals’ manure, combined with the chemicals in commercial fertilizer — much of which is used to grow the animals’ feed crops — create high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in water runoff.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these conditions can cause algae blooms, which may contain bacteria that are toxic to humans and wildlife. Our growing number of factory farms certainly harm animals, but the additional consequences are extensive.
Contaminated water threatens all Minnesotans, but may affect each of us differently. The Minnesota Department of Health acknowledges that excessive nitrates (nitrogen residuals) in drinking water are a growing concern that can lead to health problems — particularly for infants. In 2015, a child was hospitalized and a dog died after algae exposure from swimming in an Alexandria-area lake.
Steve Schultz of the environmental advocacy group Minnesota – Clean Water Action notes that our state’s compromised water quality also results in swim bans due to algal blooms, higher water bills, and exposure to harmful chemicals. These issues disproportionately affect communities of color and those already facing significant health and economic burdens. “Mostly everyone in Minnesota is a victim [of water contamination] in some way,” Schultz says.
Schultz and other clean water advocates are urging Minnesotans to act now. Voters can and should hold officials accountable for prioritizing clean water for everyone. State leadership can protect water quality by limiting the expansion of animal farming while incentivizing organic and regenerative crop farming. Minnesota can take advantage of nonprofit programs like the Transfarmation Project to help farmers transition from producing livestock and feed crops to meeting the rising demand for plant-based foods. Schools, hospitals and faith communities can play a critical role by offering more plant-based meals, which consumers can also support through their own daily consumption choices. Concerned Minnesotans can write, call or meet with their political representatives and institutional leaders to urge action.
The wellbeing of all Minnesotans is closely tied to our state’s iconic bodies of water, yet their preservation does not receive the public attention they deserve. Industrialized animal agriculture is catastrophically threatening Minnesota’s clean water. We can build a more sustainable future by cultivating a forward-thinking agricultural landscape in our state. Without swift change, our time to enjoy pristine lakes may be running out.
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