Miracle Gro Gone Wild

Last week, National Geographic took on the explosive impact that the widespread use of chemical nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production has on human health and the environment. Scientists have been leading a clarion call about the impacts of excess nitrogen for decades, but the issue remains little known, even though the impacts touch every part of our lives.

At the root of the problem is this: about half the chemical fertilizer applied to boost the growth of crops is not taken up by the plant– essentially adding unwanted, unneeded fertilizer to our natural systems with disastrous results. Think of it as a shape-shifting Miracle Gro monster run amok. Waste from livestock operations also creates nitrates that affect drinking water safety, and ammonia, which is disastrous for air quality.

If you care about clean water, your lung or heart health, or whether your favorite wildflowers will still be growing at your favorite camping spot in 10 years, check out the following sources to learn more about nitrogen.

  1. Agriculture can play a major role in preventing fertilizer from getting into waterways. Here’s a quick primer about farm-based solutions on Resource Media’s Nitrogen News. The website also contains a US map with state-specific problems and solutions.
  2. In the 16-page booklet, Excess Nitrogen in the U.S Environment: Trends, Risks, and Solutions, top US science experts review the major sources of reactive nitrogen in the U.S., its health and environment impacts, and solutions. Published by Ecological Society of America, 2012.
  3. A team of science advisors to the Environmental Protection Agency released this seminal report in 2010 that details nitrogen pollution’s environmental impacts in the United States. The recommendations on page 74 are especially worth reviewing. They include a call to end the federal corn ethanol mandate that’s spurring more fertilizer use, and a multi-agency reactive nitrogen management task force. Word on the street is that EPA and USDA reps are meeting soon to discuss the latter.
  4. Green slime – the stinky toxic algae that’s the byproduct of excess fertilizer and manure in waterways – got more attention recently when National Geographic described the rampant growth of algae across the globe, including the US.  The article contains an impressive photo slide show, from a kid in a neon-green algae-ridden pond in China, to photos of Lake Erie’s scourge that could be seen from space. (To be accurate, it’s usually the phosphorous, not nitrogen, from fertilizer and manure that spurs these freshwater algal blooms).
  5. And, some good news. In March, five Yakima Valley, WA dairies reached an agreement with the EPA to reduce nitrates from their livestock operations and improve water quality. They will provide alternative drinking water for residents whose water has nitrates levels above the EPA’s drinking water standard. For the long-term, they’ll take steps to improve fertilizer and manure management and regularly test for soil and groundwater for nitrogen levels.

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