here's a stunning moment in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland, where a man touches a match to his running faucet-to have it explode in a ball of fire. This is what hydraulic fracturing, a process of drilling for natural gas known as "fracking," is doing to many drinking water supplies across the country. But the other side of fracking-what it might do to the food eaten by people living hundreds of miles from the nearest gas well-has received little attention.
Unlike many in agriculture, cattle farmer Ken Jaffe has had a good decade. But lately he's been nervous, worried fracking will destroy his business. Jaffe's been good to his soil, and the land has been good to him. By rotating his herd of cattle to different pastures on his Catskills farm every day, he has restored the once-eroded land and built a successful business with his grass-fed and -finished beef. His Slope Farms sells meat to food coops, specialty meat markets, and high-end restaurants in New York City, about 160 miles to the southeast. "If you feed your micro-herd-the bacteria and fungi in the soil-then your big herd will do well, too," he said when I visited him recently on a cool, sunny afternoon.
But a seam of black rock lies nearly a mile beneath the topsoil he has so scrupulously nurtured, and the deposit contains enormous quantities of natural gas. Profit-hungry energy companies-and the politicians that their campaign donations support-are determined to exploit that resource, even though it could destroy the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers like Jaffe who have sprung up in New York City's vibrant, alternative food shed.
Energy companies liberate the gas, which is trapped in tiny bubble-like pockets in the rock, by forcefully injecting chemicals diluted with millions of gallons of water into the rock. This fracking ruptures the earth, creating fissures through which the gas passes-along with a witch's brew of carcinogens, acutely poisonous heavy metals, and radioactive elements.