Let’s begin by recognizing that Nitrogen is a necessary element for life. It’s also ubiquitous – it makes up 78% of the atmosphere. Plants and food crops wouldn’t stand a chance without it.
BUT (and it’s a big BUT), too much nitrogen causes some serious environmental problems. And not just for proverbial “Mother Nature.” These issues affect people and animals – and not in a good way.
The amount of food a farmer could grow was once limited by his or her ability to supplement soil nitrogen, either by planting cover crops, applying manure, or moving on to a new, more fertile field. Then, about 100 years ago, a technical innovation enabled us to produce a cheap synthetic form of nitrogen, and voila! Agriculture’s nitrogen limitation problem was solved. The age of industrial nitrogen fertilizers had begun.
The breakthrough, by German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch (rhymes with posh), made it possible to grow many, many, many more crops per acre. For the last 50 years, farmers around the world have used synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to boost their crop yields and drive the 20th century’s rapid agricultural intensification.
But in their fervor to increase yields, farmers often dose their crops with more nitrogen than the plants can absorb. The excess is now causing serious air and water pollution and threatening human health. Ironically, all that fertilizer may even be ruining the very soil it was meant to enrich.
Nitrogen, it seems, has a dark side, and it has created serious problems that we are only now beginning to reckon with.
Researchers have long known that synthetic fertilizer runoff can trigger rapid increase in marine algae populations and a rapid decrease in animal life. Artificially-produced algae blooms cause oxygen depletion, known as hypoxia. Decomposition of these algae sinks into the water and is consumed by bacteria resulting in a massive “dead zone.” These oxygen-depleted zones result in the deaths of millions of creatures. A famous example of this is the Chesapeake Bay – the nation’s largest estuary.
This area on the mid-Atlantic coast was once known for its high yield of oysters, crabs and clams. No longer. Because of the last 30 years of agricultural runoff of nitrogen-filled fertilizers, the bay’s once teeming animal life largely had died off. In 2008, the Bay’s “Bay Barometer” assessment found that “despite small successes in certain parts of the ecosystem and specific geographic areas, the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve in 2008.” The Bay’s fight to save itself has continued. In 2009, President Obama ordered the federal EPA to lead the ongoing cleanup efforts, but groups involved are still arguing over the details.
This has also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.
According to Pamela Matson, Dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford, “Nitrogen-based fertilizers are the primary source of nitrogen pollution in water bodies, and their use is predicted to double or triple over the next 50 years.”
The fertilizer runoff in both urban and suburban landscapes is nitrogen-based and linked to algae blooms in streams, lakes and rivers. Areas near watersheds are now at risk due to the urban designs that drain contaminated storm water into those rivers, lakes and streams.
Some states have enacted laws controlling the application of fertilizers by professional lawn care operators and homeowners. Because the nitrogen in synthetic fertilizer is extremely water soluble, it finds its way through the storm water systems into the watershed and thus, the water supply.
According to the US EPA:
• Lawns produce significant amounts of nutrient-rich storm water runoff
• This runoff can cause eutrophication in streams, lakes, and estuaries
• Pesticide runoff from urban lawns can contaminate drinking water supplies with chemicals toxic to humans and aquatic organisms
• Fertilizers applied to lawns are comparable to the amounts applied to agricultural row crops.
• Urban lawns receive an estimated 5 to 7 pounds of pesticides per acre per year
• Few homeowners consider lawn fertilization a cause of water quality problems
• Few urban and suburban lawn owners are aware of their lawn’s nutrient needs
This article from Grist says the obvious solution to our Nigrogen fixation is this: use less fertilizer more efficiently.
“The challenge then is to find a way to provide plants with enough nutrients to maintain high yields while also minimizing nitrogen leakages. This may sound straightforward, but it’s tough to find mainstream farmers who are using nitrogen efficiently and safely. There simply aren’t incentives to do so. Fertilizer is cheap, and polluters don’t pay.”
We agree. Less fertilizer, more effectively.
Believe it or not, there IS a viable alternative to this nitrogen-filled future we face: Liquid (not granular) bio-organic and natural fertilizers distributed via fertigation systems.
Fertigation allows you to provide all of the nutrients turf and other plants need to grow well. Bio-organic fertilizers deliver not only nutrients for plants but also carry needed nutrients and carbon for the indigenous soil micro-organism population. Increasing the resident microbe population number eliminates plant diseases, especially root pathogens.
Bio-organic fertilizers are sustainable because they employs nature’s methods of feeding landscapes. Synthetic fertilizers never have and never can supply the single biggest nutrient soil needs – carbon. And we agree again, Grist, we do not have another quarter century to spare.