Florida has been in the news recently for the most peculiar reason. Apparently, giant green waves laden with toxic blue-green algae – which have been compared to guacamole – are washing up on South Florida beaches, leaving behind a thick layer of scum. This massive bloom stretched over 33 miles and could be seen from space. Governor Rick Scott even declared a state of emergency following the spread of this bloom and the ecosystem is still struggling to balance itself out.

Now it seems that algae blooms are causing more problems in the south of Florida, according to the Orlando Sentinel, eight manatee carcases were found washed ashore at the Brevard County’s Indian River Lagoon since the end of May.

Manatees have teetered on the edge of being classified as a threatened and an endangered species for over a decade and the loss of so many individuals is a pretty big deal considering their low reproduction rate.

Digging into the cause of the death for these manatees, scientists have turned to algae outbreaks as the potential culprit. “We are still narrowing down the cause, but the hypothesis is still that the change of vegetation that the manatees are eating makes them to susceptible to complications in their guts,” said Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It gives them acute shock.”

The marine life in this region have struggled with algae blooms since 2012. These blooms typically turn the water a dark brown and cause sea grass to die off, leaving only red seaweed behind. Sea grass is a main food source for manatees and switching over to red seaweed is what is believed to be causing problems, however, they aren’t the only animals suffering. Prior reports show drops in dolphin and pelican populations in tandem with the rise of local algae blooms.

So what is causing this rise in algae in south Florida? One of the primary suspects is manure and fertilizer run off caused by industrial agriculture.

Phosphorus and nitrogen are two nutrients commonly linked to a rise in algae blooms, both of which are abundant in livestock manure. A 2015 report by the South Floria Water Management District noted that run off from cattle ranches, dairy farms, and vegetable farms as far north as the Orlando suburbs traveled down to the south of the state by way of the Kissimmee River. In fact, their report found that about 37 percent of phosphorus charged discharge water that comes from land to the north.

With the ability to travel through discharge water, these nutrients have the potential to cause wide-scale devastation to local marine life and ecosystems in the state. In fact, algal blooms triggered by animal agriculture are far too common in the U.S., but it comes as little surprise considering the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly 335 million tons of manure (measured in dry weight) is produced by livestock in the United States each year. And if a farm doesn’t have a treatment system in place to handle that waste, the nutrients from this manure can end up in ground water or surface water, only to flow into and accumulate in a lake or ocean

While the algae bloom linked to the deaths of manatees is not the same one that lead to guacamole waves, it still illustrates the role that our food choices play in altering delicate marine ecosystems. Animal agriculture plays a huge role in disrupting ecosystems across the U.S. and seeing the potential impact that algal blooms triggered by additional nutrients in the water can have on endangered species, like manatees, we have to ask ourselves if it is really worth it? Is having more cheeseburgers really worth degrading critical marine habitats?

The good news is we can all have a hand in reducing animal agriculture’s impact by simply reducing, or eliminating, the amount of meat and dairy we consume on a daily basis. If the overall demand for these products were to decrease, we’d no longer need massive factory farms housing tens of thousands of animals that produce more excrement than the entire human population combined

As the leading organization at the forefront of the conscious consumerism movement, it is One Green Planet’s view that our food choices have the power to heal our broken food system, give species a fighting chance for survival, and pave the way for a truly sustainable future. To learn more about how you can use your food choices for good, join One Green Planet’s #EatForThePlanet movement!

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