Hydraulic Fracturing and Agriculture, Starting the Conversation

by Krystal Ford
May 2, 2011
*Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not constitute the opinions of the Food Systems Network NYC.

On Monday, May 2, residents from across New York State gathered in Albany to rally for a statewide ban on fracking. Students, farmers, leaders and activists organized lobby visits and petitioned in the state capitol to demonstrate to legislators the need for a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing in the region. New Yorkers have been battling horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a resource-intense method of deriving natural gas from the ground, in the Marcellus Shale for the past several years, and with the state moratorium set to expire on July 1, residents are getting worried.

Most of the conversation around hydraulic fracturing revolves around contaminated water, rightly so, but there are other equally important concerns that need to be discussed. Natural gas drilling puts our agricultural land and food at risk. All forms of agriculture, from growing crops to raising livestock, depend on clean water.Farmland in NYS

Gas drilling will be taking place mainly in rural communities because of the amount of land required for each gas well. Farmers are prime targets for natural gas companies. They have land and for many farmers, especially New York dairy farmers, life is constant struggle to survive. Leasing a small parcel of land can be very tempting.

Many problems can arise when ground water is accidentally contaminated with chemicals or heavy metals through the fracking process. Millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are injected under pressure into gas wells, fracturing the rock and releasing the trapped gas. The toxic wastewater is then stored in an open pond. Land and water surrounding the pond can become contaminated if there is a tear in the liner or a heavy rainfall causes it to overflow.

Farmers could be affected in a number of ways. Organic growers could lose their certification. Crops could fail, or crops could contain high levels of toxic metals, chemicals, or radioactive materials. There is already mounting evidence that livestock animals exposed to contaminated water, pastures, or polluted air are dying, becoming sterile, and giving birth to offspring with defects. Veterinarian Liz Chandler of Rifle, Colorado, told Scientific American she has seen a bull go sterile, a herd of beef cows stop going into heat, pigs stop going into heat, and sheep bred on an organic dairy farm having inexplicable still births.

So what should consumers do? They could blacklist farms located near natural gas wells. Joe Holtz, General Manager of the Park Slope Food Coop, in an open letter, wrote to the state that they would not purchase food from farms anywhere near drilling sites, for fear of contamination. While this is a completely understandable response this type of consumer backlash could be devastating to farmers, and it might mean extinction for the NY dairy farmer.

What is the solution?

I came across a passage in Sandra Steingraber’s new book, Raising Elijah, that has certain parallels to our current dilemma. In1961, fear of nuclear war sent people on a bomb shelter building craze across America. The bomb shelter provided a false sense of individual security, since it would be ineffective if there ever was a nuclear attack. As the sociologist Andrew Szasz pointed out it might have actually increased the possibility of nuclear actions because it distracted people from actively working for peace. They were resigning themselves to the inevitable. There is a lesson to be learned here. We can choose to take no action and ignore the problem. We can take individual protectionist action and stop eating food from farms near gas drilling, which won’t solve the larger issue of widespread pollution inherent in drilling. Or, we can take action to protect our food, our water, and our health. Clean water and good food are worth fighting for.


Krystal Ford is a Graduate Student at NYU in the Food Studies program with a focus on sustainable agriculture. She Co-Chairs the Cold Spring Farmers' Market Board and is a member of Slow Food NYC board of directors.

Interested? Learn more about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on our food supply at the upcoming FSNYC May Open Networking Meeting.