Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): nutrient pollution

Fertilizer runoff is just one piece of the dead zone puzzle

Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

Dead zones (also called hypoxic zones) are caused by a rapid growth in algae that leads to less dissolved oxygen in the water and the death of aquatic species. Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

It’s true that fertilizer runoff, sewage, and other pollutants from the Corn Belt have significantly boosted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because up to half of the fertilizer applied isn’t absorbed by crops, and in order to grow more food we’re using 20 times more fertilizer in the Corn Belt today than in the 1950s.

But even if we optimize fertilizer use on all cropland in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River Basins, nutrients will still be lost to rivers and streams and carried into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this loss is inevitable given factors like unpredictable weather, but my colleagues and I set out to quantify other reasons for why the Corn Belt exports so much nitrogen.

We discovered that an increase in fertilizer inputs is only one part of the problem. Three other distinct but interconnected factors also contribute to water pollution and the Gulf dead zone: the loss of perennial cover, the construction of artificial drainage systems, and the loss of wetlands. Read More »

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How to end the fertilizer guessing game

TractorLanceCheungUSDAviaFlickrAs spring planting season gets underway, many farmers are starting to wonder how much nitrogen they should apply to their crops this year to maximize yields.

The traditional approach is to apply a bit of extra fertilizer as an insurance policy to protect yields in case some of it washes away. The problem is, this is costly – nitrogen fertilizer accounts for at least half of farmers’ input costs, even though on average, 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is lost – and harmful to air and water quality.

What we need is to get to a sweet spot of fertilizer application – meaning the right amount that both protects natural resources and maximizes yields.

I asked Thomas Morris, professor of soil fertility at the University of Connecticut, about ways that research, precision agriculture tools, and data analysis can help farmers determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crops. Read More »

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What a trip to rural Thailand taught this Idaho farmer

chicken house-Thailand

Dick Wittman and his family in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand.

Last time you went to the grocery store, did you notice that your pineapple was from Costa Rica, your pears from Argentina, your edamame from China, your salmon from Scotland, and your rice from Thailand?

To address the true environmental impacts of agriculture, we’ll need to think beyond our borders. And to alleviate environmental impacts in countries around the globe, we need to first understand the context of farming in these places.

I asked Dick Wittman, who manages a 19,000-acre dry land crop, range cattle and timber operation in northern Idaho and runs a farm consulting business, to tell me what he and his wife learned about farming and environmental challenges on their recent trip to Thailand. Read More »

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Beyond regulation: making the business case for sustainable farming

BarnStream_shutterstock_1539474_RFRegulations and lawsuits generate more tension, disagreement, division, and, too often, failure to communicate, than just about anything else in the agricultural world. Regulations are on my mind of late because of several developments:

    • Ohio recently considered legislation to increase regulations on fertilizer applications after a toxic algae bloom last August shut down water supplies to nearly half a million people.
    • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the final stages of a proposal to resolve ongoing confusion about the extent of federal jurisdiction over isolated wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act (CWA), clarifying which are protected and which are not, based on science. Sixty percent of our nation’s streams lack clear protection from pollution under the CWA, yet one of every three Americans gets their drinking water from streams that are vulnerable to pollution.  Just this week, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that Congress will address this proposal in the current legislative session.

    Read More »

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    Pill holds promise for reducing fertilizer’s unwanted side effects

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    Future fertilizer pill would detect signals from plant roots to reduce nutrient losses. Photo credit: Liz Bokt

    Can a little pill solve the problem of fertilizer waste? It sounds futuristic, but it could become a reality in the next 10 years, according to recent article on AgWeb.com.

    The article highlighted new developments in nanotechnology aimed at creating a “fertilizer pill” that could detect chemical signals from plant roots and release nitrogen according to those signals. The pill would allow for nitrogen to be released on an as needed basis, thereby reducing fertilizer waste byproducts that are harmful to the environment.

    Although fertilizer has undeniable benefits for crop yields, excess fertilizer that runs off into our waterways is damaging to rivers, oceans and the climate.

    Read More »

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    Will Ohio’s proposed fertilizer legislation solve the runoff problem?

    Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields

    Proposed legislation in Ohio would regulate when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields.

    The Ohio General Assembly will vote next week on legislation that aims to address the problem of nutrient pollution, which was responsible for a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie that contaminated the drinking water of more than 400,000 Ohio residents this past August.

    In short, the bill would ban application of fertilizer on land that is frozen, covered by snow, saturated with rain, or when the weather predicts a certain amount of rainfall. Those who violate the ban could face penalties of up to $10,000.

    Policies that set rational ground rules for when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields and that create real incentives to reduce nutrient pollution are important, but it’s going to take more than legislation to solve the runoff problem. Read More »

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    Water filters can fight dead zones without hindering farm production

    Updated (October 23, 2014): Interior, Agriculture Departments Partner to Measure Conservation Impacts on Water Quality 

    A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

    A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

    “Is the water safe?”

    In the United States, we take it for granted that the answer to that question is “yes.” But the residents of Toledo, OH, learned recently that their water wasn’t safe to drink for a few days because toxins associated with an algal bloom in Lake Erie had contaminated the city’s water supply. Meanwhile, a Maryland man was released from the hospital after nearly losing his leg and his life to flesh-eating bacteria contracted from swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

    These types of incidents are caused by nutrient pollution. Although nutrient pollution can come from many sources, runoff from agriculture is the dominant contributor to the problem in Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture-associated nutrient pollution also impacts local streams and lakes, causing fish kills and closing swimming beaches. A recent study in Minnesota suggested that more than 70 percent of nitrogen in state waters comes from cropland.

    What needs to be done, and how much will make a difference? Read More »

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