The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
A New Way to Curb Nitrogen Pollution: Regulate Fertilizer Producers, Not Just Farmers
By David Kanter
Nitrogen pollution is produced by a number of interlinked compounds, from ammonia to nitrous oxide. While they have both natural and human sources, the latter increased dramatically over the past century as farmers scaled up food production in response to population growth. Once these chemicals are released into the air and water, they contribute to problems that include climate change and "dead zones" in rivers, lakes and coastal areas.
Reducing nitrogen pollution around the globe is an urgent environmental goal, but extremely challenging—in part because the main human source is agriculture. Environmental policies are especially hard to enforce on farms because there are many of them over broad areas, which makes it difficult to confirm that farmers are complying. And powerful agricultural interest groups often push back against them.
Even for farmers who want to do a better job, managing nitrogen use is challenging. Nitrogen is a key nutrient that helps plants and livestock grow, but it escapes readily into the environment.
My research focuses on nitrogen and its many environmental impacts. In a recent study, Princeton University research scholar Tim Searchinger and I lay out a new strategy that targets fertilizer companies as well as farmers. It draws from the example of U.S. fuel efficiency standards, which reduce fuel consumption by regulating a relatively small group of large car manufacturers instead of more than 200 million drivers.
Nutrient pollution affects waterways across the United States. USEPA
The Limits of Farmer-Focused Policies
Nitrogen is essential for producing food, but about half of the nitrogen used in the global agricultural sector—from fertilizer applied on fields to manure stored in lagoons—is either emitted to the atmosphere or washed off into local waterways.
These losses stem from how farmers apply nitrogen and in what forms. Consequently, most nitrogen management policies are designed to give farmers incentives to change their behavior—for example, by developing nutrient management plans or using more environmentally friendly fertilizers that delay the release of nitrogen into soil.
However, this approach has had little effect. At the national level, adoption of best practices and technologies has remained stagnant since the mid-1990s, while nitrogen pollution levels have increased.
Fertilizer is the single largest source of nitrogen pollution delivered downriver to the Gulf of Mexico. USGS
To get past this impasse, we looked for approaches that go beyond the farmer. Analyzing past environmental policies, we identified two conditions that increased the chances of success. First, policies tend to be more successful when they target sectors in which a small number of actors control a majority of the market, which makes monitoring and enforcement easier. The U.S. has 2.1 million farms spread over 900 million acres, so regulating nitrogen use at the farm level is not an efficient approach.
Second, we found that the likelihood of success increases dramatically if the regulated actors can profit from being regulated—for example, because they produce patent-protected alternatives to the product that is being controlled.
The 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out chlofluorocarbons (CFCs) because they depleted Earth's stratospheric ozone layer, is a good example. Chemical manufacturer DuPont controlled a quarter of global CFC production when the treaty was negotiated, but supported the agreement because it also had patents on at least two generations of CFC alternatives.
In other words, the policy created a global market for a new set of products. We believe a similar dynamic exists for the North American fertilizer industry.
Project SENSE youtu.be
Profiting From Better Management
Five companies currently control over 80 percent of North American production capacity for urea, an inexpensive form of nitrogen fertilizer, and ammonia, the main ingredient for all types of nitrogen fertilizers. Four of these companies either produce a more environmentally friendly fertilizer or provide a service to help farmers use nitrogen more efficiently.
But these greener offerings occupy a very small niche in the fertilizer market. For example, Nutrien, which makes the most popular environmentally friendly fertilizer, Environmentally Smart Nitrogen, devotes less than 5 percent of its nitrogen production capacity to this product. Nor are these options widely used by farmers.
Effective nitrogen management policies could boost demand for these products and services. They also could stimulate development of new technologies better suited to specific crops and climates, which would represent important economic opportunities for the fertilizer industry.
Regulate the Few, Not the Many
To understand what an industry-focused approach might look like, we turned to U.S. corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards. CAFE regulations, which were introduced in response to high gas prices during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, require motor vehicle manufacturers to meet rising fuel efficiency targets over time, measured in miles per gallon for new vehicles.
Instead of forcing more than 200 million drivers to limit their mileage, this approach targets car manufacturers and ensures that the U.S. vehicle fleet becomes more fuel-efficient over time. The Trump administration is currently seeking to freeze CAFE standards instead of implementing an increase negotiated under President Obama, but it is not contesting the basic idea of making manufacturers responsible for vehicle fuel economy.
This approach could be applied to fertilizer in at least two ways. First, suppliers could be required to increase sales of more environmentally friendly fertilizers as a percentage of total sales. Second, their products could be required to achieve a specific performance level where more nitrogen is available to crops rather than lost to the environment.
Both approaches would share the burden of improving nitrogen management across farmers and the fertilizer industry. They also would give manufacturers incentive to develop more effective options.
Benefits for Farmers, Industry and the Environment
We evaluated how such an approach could work on 25 million acres of U.S. corn farmlands where nitrogen application rates are especially excessive. To estimate potential impacts, we compared three policy scenarios that required farmers to use environmentally friendly forms of nitrogen for either 12, 30 or 50 percent of their total applications by 2030.
In our most ambitious scenario, we calculated that farmers' fertilizer costs would rise. However, this increase would be more than offset by higher revenue from increased corn yields, leading to total nationwide gains of $300 million by 2030. Industry profits would increase by over $150 million during the same period due to increased sales of more environmentally friendly fertilizers, which generate higher profit margins than traditional fertilizers. And the policy would produce $8 billion in environmental benefits by 2030 due to avoided damage costs from nitrogen pollution, dwarfing the impacts on farmers and industry.
It would make sense to test a CAFE-style approach at the local or state level. California, which has already adopted ambitious climate change goals—including mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture—could be a potential test bed.
There is no easy solution for curbing nitrogen pollution, given the diversity of agricultural, climatic and political systems across the world. Nevertheless, as the challenge worsens and world population grows, it is urgent to explore all policy options, especially approaches that could stimulate technological change and address a variety of environmental threats more quickly.
David Kanter is an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University.
Disclosure statement: David Kanter is the vice-chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
- Our fertilizer is killing us. Here's a fix. | Grist ›
- Bill Aims To Reduce Pollution By Restricting High-Nitrogen Fertilizers ›
- Nitrogen – ocean plastics pollution's forgotten neighbour | UNDP ›
- Fertilizers, a Boon to Agriculture, Pose Growing Threat to U.S. ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
‘Companies Should Not Be Allowed to Use Hazardous Ingredients in Products People Use’: Michelle Pfeiffer Speaks Up for Safer Cosmetics
The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.
Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.
The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.
"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.