How does America feed itself? Currently, over 300 million people are living in the United States. This large population can only be sustained through the use of inorganic, or man-made, fertilizers. Inorganic fertilizers offer great benefits to the agriculture industry by providing a food source for the crops they grow. However, when these fertilizers are relocated by erosion, they promote unwanted growth and overpopulation of plants in some areas. When these plants grow they negatively affect the ecosystem where they reside.
As these algae carry out their lives they produce waste which decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen available for fish. As water’s oxygen content drops fish will start to die from asphyxiation, or suffocation. Unregulated use of inorganic fertilizer negatively impacts the world’s ecosystems and alternatives must be developed in order stop the damage. Inorganic fertilizers are produced by the Haber Process, the process by which hydrogen and nitrogen gas combine to produce ammonia. This ammonia, when introduced to soil, forms various compounds which propel the growth of plant and plant-like organisms.
Using chemical fertilizers on crops improves yield as revealed in a recent study examining the benefits of using fertilizer on banana trees in Uganda. According to Africa News Service, the addition of fertilizer to banana farms helps produce more bananas. “The study showed that modest fertilizer use significantly increased the crop’s yield- the crop doubled from 10 tonnes to 20 tonnes per hectacre per year in Central Uganda”(“Moderate”). By doubling its banana yield annually, this act is helping feed hungry Ugandan citizens.
The study also concluded by adding fertilizer to the soil plants grow not only bigger, but faster assured Dr. Asten, who led the study said, “Application of fertilizer not only increases bunch weight but also shortens the crop cycle so the plants produce more bunches in a year” (“Moderate”). By generating bountiful and prosperous fields more quickly, fertilizer is a good choice for the farming industry in this area and allows for sufficient food to feed its residents. Using a wide variety of nutrients in fertilizer further maximizes crop yield.
Encyclopedia of Food & Culture reports, using a wide variety of fertilizers is the best way to achieve the most growth. “Other nutrients like limestone, phosphorus, and potassium helped achieve the genetic potential of the crop” (“High-Technology”). Furthermore, this text indicates that using the most vital nutrients in unison produces optimal growth because certain nutrients are necessary to carry on essential bodily processes within plants. In today’s world, the use of technology is optimizing what farmers grow on their land. The ready availability of nitrogen fertilizer, along with better understanding of fertility through soil testing, improved fertilizer application and crop growth has made nitrogen fertilizer a must have for any farmer” (“High-Technology”). Farmers who value their time and money invest in educating themselves and take advantage of these new technologies as they are available. Nitrogen fertilizer is needed in some places to sustain a harvestable crop. Last year an emergency message was sent from farmers in Zimbabwe to their local government requesting nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Lawrence Magwenzi, a native farmer, explains the only way to salvage the seasons’ crops after a drought was to add fertilizer. “The rains have been consistent this season, but most crops were planted without fertilizers and if we don’t get ammonium nitrate in the next two weeks the crop would be a total failure” (We). The ammonium nitrate delivered by fertilizer is used to spark the growth of failing crops. A professional from China comments plants are experiencing deficiency of a certain nutrient, a color change is noticeable. Farmers had planted a good hectacreage in response to the Governments’ call to combat food shortages but as you can see the crops are turning yellow, which is a sign of nitrogen deficiency” (We). The color change associated with nitrogen deficiency represents the dependency of the area’s farming industry on inorganic fertilizer. Many areas initially appear to need fertilizer to grow crops including Africa whose mostly unfit soil is not meant to host life to plants. However, with the aid of nutrient-rich fertilizer these areas grow their own varieties of food.
These great gains attained by the use of fertilizers come at a price. Even though fertilizer seems essential to keep the world’s population fed, there are many determents. Because fertilizers used in farming are soluble in water, they are prone to spreading throughout the environment. According to Environment, a news journal, this spreading or runoff contamination, is potentially harmful to the environment. “Excess nitrates can contaminate surface water (which can lead to aquatic “dead zones”) and groundwater supplies through the soil” (“Organic” 5) .
Dead zones are areas of low life due to over nutrition of nearby water systems. Inorganic fertilizers contain high concentrations of different nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium and ammonia, the introduction of these uncommon elements affects the ecosystem from the smallest organisms to the tertiary, or top, predators. For example in 2006 a study reveals these nutrients are directly affecting Americans water supply. “Nearly 2 in 10 domestic wells sampled between 1993 and 2000 had nitrate concentrations exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards” (“Organic” 5).
The repercussions of large scale fertilizer use are now noticeable in the lives of everyday people. However, its negative impact is greatest for smaller organisims. The application of inorganic fertilizer will create a lasting problem for organisms living in the upper soil level. In 2008, a study by European Journal of Soil Science examined how nutrients spread through the upper soil level. C. J. Watson, a soil scientist, noticed how the concentration of the selected nutrient, phosphorus, had increased over time. “Total P [phosphorus] in the top 5 cm of soil increased from 0. 5g/kg to 1. 04g/kg” (Watson 1173). He adds the concentration of N, or nitrogen, rose due to earthworm activity and uptake by the vegetation. “Upward water movement, during periods of high evapo-transpiration, may also bring P [phosphorus] up from greater soil depths” (Watson 1174). This increase of soil nutrients in the upper levels is potentially hazardous because flowing water has more potential to carry off nutrients. Organic fertilizers, such as manure and plant compost, also contribute to the toxic substances released into the ecosystem.
In Vietnam, water samples were taken near areas where two different types of fertilizer were applied: organic fertilizer, or animal manure, and inorganic fertilizer. Samples were tested for nitrogen and ammonium nitrate concentrations. “September 2003, a temporal increase in ammonium-N concentration was noticed, which suggests chemical fertilizer N and/or animal/human wastes as possible sources of ammonium-N in the groundwater” (Tran Thi Le Ha 2056). In other words, this increase of Ammonium-N in nearby farmland is most likely caused by the addition of organic as well as inorganic fertilizers.
To prevent this increase, levels of nitrogen must be monitored regularly near farmland. “From the values encompassing all monitoring, the ammonium –N concentration (mg/L) ranged from trace to 8. 8 in all communes” (Nguyen Huu Thanh 2061). This finding indicates that great increase of nitrogen in certain areas is most likely caused by inorganic fertilizers. However, it concluded inorganic fertilizers put out more nitrates than organic because nitrogen concentrations are much higher in synthesized materials than natural wastes, or organic fertilizers The large scale use of inorganic fertilizer has wide spread repercussions.
Molly O’Meara, a writer for World Watch, explains how nitrogen along with other nutrients are carried away from farmlands and are consequently introduced to aquatic wildlife. “Nitrogen that ends up in the water can also lead to decreased biological diversity, as seen by dwindling fish populations in acidified lakes throughout Scandinavia, Canada, and the northeastern United States” (O’Meara 11). These over nourished lakes with low fish populations are more common each summer.
When nitrogen and other nutrients from fertilizers make their way into water ways they promote the growth of algae, or plant-like organisms that live in water, and other organisms. “Over enrichment of estuaries and coastal waters with nitrogen is thought to be at least partly responsible for the surge in toxic algae blooms in the 1980s that killed huge numbers of fish and shellfish” (O’Meara 11). Algae are important primary producers. They convert energy from the sun into food energy that is passed onto predators traveling up the food chain.
In other words, overproduction is harmful to other living organisms in the ecosystem and reaches far beyond aquatic organisms Dead zones, or areas of water that cannot sustain life, are more common. In 1999, writer Michael Fumento describes large areas of water which are over populated by algae. When algae die their decomposing bodies absorb the dissolved oxygen present in the water fish need to respire. “The dead zone in the Mississippi river basin is big—about 7,500 square miles”(Fumento 96).
This dead zone is one of the largest in the world and is caused mainly by the runoff of chemical fertilizer. Before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, dead zones still naturally occurred. “Sediment analysis indicate hypoxia became more severe in the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers”(Fumento 96). However, inorganic fertilizers exponentially increase and expand the number of dead zones. Chronic use of fertilizers will increase the overall population of algae in coastal waters near farmland.
An article published by USA Today reports algae growth is propelled by the addition of nitrogen and other nutrients to the water. “Scientists believe that coastal runoff, including everything from lawn fertilizers to sewage, spurs the growth of macro algae, which look like large red, brown, and green plants”(“Coastal” 5). Adding inorganic nutrients will increase the growth and quantity of coastal algae by significantly increasing their reproductive process.. Over population of algae in coastal water creates competition between coral reefs and the dominant algae surrounding it. When large seaweeds proliferate, they form “underwater turfs” growing up to six inches high. Professor Dunton, head of Marine Biology at UT Austin says these turfs can eventually overgrow and smother the coral reef” (Dunton 5). Overcrowding of coastal waters by algae will negatively impact the tourist and fishing industry as reefs are destroyed. The increase in dead zones is a global issue. Eutrophication occurs when key nutrients become concentrated enough for algae along with other bacteria to thrive.
When these organisms thrive over large areas dead zones occur more frequently. In 2006 World Watch published an article discussing dead zones as an international dilemma. Brian Halweil, writer for World Watch, comments dead zones are increasing in frequency and size. “Such oxygen-depleted “dead zones” have multiplied in recent decades and now total some 146 worldwide. In most severe cases, the zones exceed 20,000 square kilometers, as in the Gulf of Mexico, The East China Sea, and the Baltic Sea” (Halweil 7). Areas of eutrophication are growing each year.
Eutrophication negatively affects the fishing industry. “A massive dead zone now appears every summer at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and has decimated shellfish and shrimp industries in the Gulf of Mexico. …Inarguably, the effects of marine nitrogen pollution are becoming extremely widespread and severe as a consequence of the global expansion of industrialized agriculture” (Halweil 7). Withering fish populations will decrease the profit made by fishermen and discourage sports fishermen, which affects the economy as well as the food supply an area.
As awareness of the ecological and economical impact increases government agencies responses to this issue are improving. A recent article by Christian Science Monitor identifies the geographic location and expansion of dead zones. “More than 400 dead zones with a total area of 245,000 square miles were identified worldwide last year” (Clayton). Previous sources state there were 146 dead zones in 2006 worldwide at present they number over 400, revealing the number of dead zones has increase more than two-fold. On average more than 50 new dead zones are reported annually by respected scientific sources.
Fortunately, steps are being taken to improve the world’s current state. “This spring a Federal science advisory report is expected to recommend a national goal of improving the efficiency of farm nitrogen fertilizer use by 25 percent. ” (Herz and Galloway). This new goal offers great benefits to the ecosystem and, hopefully will assist in decreasing the rapid expansion of dead zones. Furthermore, it may prevent the death of other animals. Internal damage is common among organisms which ingest fertilizer runoff. Animals that ingest nitrogen in large quantities may die from nitrate poisoning.
Africa News Service warns in a recent article of the harmful implications of allowing animals graze on failing fields. Rajuk Njagu, a local farmer states, “In some cases when farmers realize they have lost their crop, they attempt to salvage something and allow their animals to feed on the wilting plants, but such animals are exposed to nitrate poisoning” (Njagu). Large grazing animals do not realize they ingest toxins in plants by consuming them. The chemicals present on farmland are absorbed by the plants to carry on bodily processes.
However, if animals ingest the same chemicals it is potentially deadly says Elita Chikwati, a veterinarian. “Sick animals show signs of weakness, rapid breathing, and dark mucous membranes and may collapse and die within half an hour to five hours of consuming contaminated plants. ” (Chikwati) This revelation proves the dangers to grazing animals when allowed to feed on land where inorganic fertilizers are, or have been previously, applied. Certain locations are more vulnerable to nutrient runoff; Now, fertilizer use is better regulated. Less nitrogen is needed on arable (plowed) land. These are 250kg/ha of N [nitrogen] for grassland and 210kg of N for arable, averaged over the whole farm” (Dampney 22). Different soil types also support different amounts of inorganic substances. Organic fertilizer also contains measurable amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen and ammonia are regulated as well. “No more than 250kg/ha a year of nitrogen from organic manure may be applied to individual fields” (Dampney 22). These new policies, if strictly regulated and enforced, will decrease the amount of inorganic substances present over time decreasing the negative impact of their use on the environment.
Furthermore, leaving fields once contaminated by fertilizer to sit for extended periods of time will eventually lower nutrient levels. An article published by Agricultural Research affirms that, high nitrate levels in different farming soils will return to normal over periods of time, according to Lloyd B. Owens, a fertilizer specialist. “I found that the nitrate-nitrogen in groundwater was brought down to about the same level (2 to 4 ppm) under both management practices, and the lack of fertilizer caused only a slight decrease in grass growth.
But, most importantly, it didn’t make any difference whether cattle were on the land or not” (“High” 21). Many of the processes aid in the purification of soil. ‘“When you harvest the hay, you remove some nitrogen from the soil, Owens says. And when cattle graze, they remove some of the nitrogen”’ (Lloyd B. Owens 21). These actions help transport nutrients elsewhere and reduce the negative impact of inorganic fertilizers on the ecosystem. Only a certain amount of nitrogen is absorbed by a given plant at any given time.
A study held by the chemical engineering department at Michigan State proves increasing the amount of nitrogen in soil does not always produce larger crops. “Increasing the fertilizer rate from 0. 5g N/L to 1. 0g N/L did not increase height growth” (“Findings” 585). Plants are not affected by inorganic nitrogen beyond this concentration as much, the plants growth continues to increase only until the concentration reaches this key point. “Foliar nitrogen increased with each fertilizer addition although height growth did not increase beyond 0. 5g N/L, indicating possible luxury consumption” (“Findings” 585).
This luxury consumption is harmful to anything that feeds on fertilized plants and the environment thereafter, due to runoff. Students from Michigan State have developed a system for calculating the optimal rate to apply inorganic nitrogen. According to Michigan State CHE (Chemical Engineering) students, when nitrogen rates are carefully controlled, the benefits outweigh the determents. “Nitrogen fertilizer positively affects corn yield and the soil organic carbon level, but it also has negative environmental effects through the nitrogen-related emission from soil. (e. g.
N20,N0x,NO3(-) leaching, etc)” (“Researchers” 2874). The negative impact of nitrogen fertilizer is greatly reduced if the appropriate amount of nitrogen needed for plants is added. These students constructed a model for proper fertilizer usage. “Therefore, an Appropriate NAR (nitrogen application rate) could enhance profitability as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with corn grain” (Michigan State Dept of Chemical Engineering 2874). Using the appropriate NAR is a significant advantage to most farmers in the nearby area and, simultaneously, saves the farmer’s money and sparing the environment.
Now that the impact of utilizing inorganic fertilizers as a nutrient source for crops has been identified, it is safe to argue the processes and rates of application must be reviewed, revised and regulated in order to fix the harm already done and defer additional danger. Dead zones numbers are at their greatest in history. Over nourished algae are posing a threat to coral reefs, which house many exotic species of aquatic life, the tourist and fishing industries in many different countries will continue to suffer as a result.
Using the appropriate NAR will allow farmers to save money and minimize the harm done to the environment. Immediate intervention is a must to sustain life in these areas. If the world does not act within the next decade ecosystems will be destroyed and the economy will continue to decline. Works Cited Article 1 Clayton, Mark. “Earth’s growing nitrogen threat; It helps feed a hungry world, but it’s worse than CO2. ” Christian Science Monitor 12 Jan. 2010. Student Edition. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. Article 2 “Coastal Runoff Killing Underwater Gardens. ” USA Today [Magazine] June 2001: 5.
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