Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

The Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction

Energy

My heart aches for the people of West, Texas, the tiny town where a fertilizer plant recently blew up. Many of the folks who perished in the blast were heroic volunteer firefighters who ran into danger instead of away from it.

On April 17, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility in West, Texas.

With 15 dead and 160 injured, and a nearby nursing home, school and apartment complex either badly damaged or destroyed, West’s brave citizens have hard work ahead.

As a nation, we must prevent a disaster like this from happening again. For starters, we can make fertilizer plants safer and locate them away from schools and nursing homes from now on.

This tragedy is even more painful because the factory was making a product—nitrogen fertilizer—that perhaps should not be used at all.

Here’s a big question we should all be asking: Why do Americans use so much nitrogen fertilizer in the first place?

Scientists discovered two centuries ago that plants need nitrogen, a building block of protein, to grow.

Whether you fertilize your soil with manure or with the fertilizer manufactured in the plant that just blew up, you’re adding nitrogen to your soil. Too much nitrogen kills your plants. But without nitrogen, plants can’t grow.

That seems simple. But there’s more to it. Another element, carbon, is inextricably linked to nitrogen. Microbes in the soil need both carbon and nitrogen to survive, and they need them in the right ratios. Add too much nitrogen, and the microbes end up depleting the carbon in the soil as a result.

Of course, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to sugars via photosynthesis. So why does it matter if there’s no carbon left in the soil?

Well, the carbon located in the soil allows the ground to retain air and water. Plants need that carbon because they need air and water. Without carbon, the soil becomes compressed and hard. Water can’t penetrate it easily, and instead of seeping deep into the ground, it evaporates. This leaves farmland—and crops—more vulnerable to both drought and floods.

Strangely enough, even though nitrogen-based fertilizer allows plants to grow lush and green, it also weakens their defense mechanisms. This makes farmland, lawns and gardens more attractive to pests.

Plants evolved in the absence of modern fertilizer and pesticides. Believe it or not, they are far more in control than we imagine them to be. I see them as conductors of a vast, microscopic orchestra.

The roots of every plant emit chemicals called exudates that draw microbes to the zone immediately around the roots. The microbes—bacteria and fungi—stay there, feeding off the exudates. In exchange, the microbes provide the plant with nutrients, including nitrogen.

The microbes feed the plant, prey on or compete with harmful organisms and improve the structure of the soil. These microbes are the key to every great natural landscape in the world—and to successful organic farming.

We can maximize crop productivity by putting these microbes to work for us. Instead, “conventional” farmers routinely kill them by using nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) that depletes their soil.

Critics of nitrogen fertilizer often compare it to a drug. The first hit feels really good, and your crops grow big and beautiful. But as the microbes in your soil die and your carbon is depleted, you need more and more fertilizer just to get the same yields.

Meanwhile, fertilizer runs off, polluting nearby waterways. And because fertilizer is made with natural gas—often obtained these days via the extreme drilling process known as fracking—it devastates the environment when it’s manufactured as well as when it’s used.

Hydrofracking gas drilling site near Sopertown, PA, located in a farm field with centralized containment pond. Photo credit:
J Henry Fair

Just like junkies suffer painful withdrawal when they stop taking drugs, a farm addicted to nitrogen fertilizer will experience a drop in yields for a few years once they stop using it. But after five “drug-free" years, a properly managed organic farm can meet or exceed the yields it would have achieved using chemicals.

Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay for converting from "conventional" to organic farming.

Let’s end our national addiction to fertilizer.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING and BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.

——–

Sign the petition today, telling President Obama to enact an immediate fracking moratorium:

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

World Environment Day was put into motion almost fifty years ago by the United Nations as a response to a multitude of environmental threats. RicardoImagen / Getty Images

It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.

Read More Show Less
Experts are worried that COVID-19, a primarily respiratory and airway disease, could have permanent effects on lungs, inhibiting the ability for divers to continue diving. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels

Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.

Read More Show Less
A pipeline being constructed in Pennsylvania. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday mandating federal agencies bypass key environmental reviews of energy and infrastructure projects.
Read More Show Less
A coke storage area is seen as steam rises from the quench towers at the US Steel Clairton Works on Jan. 21, 2020, in Clairton, Pennsylvania. White plumes of smoke billow above western Pennsylvania's rolling hills as scorching ovens bake coal, which rolls in by the trainload along the Monongahela River. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images

President Trump's claim that the U.S. has the cleanest air and water in the world has been widely refuted by statistics showing harmful levels of pollution. Now, a new biannual ranking released by researchers at Yale and Columbia finds that the U.S. is nowhere near the top in environmental performance, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
Students walk by a sign reading "Climate Change" at the Doctor Tolosa Latour public school in Madrid, Spain on Sept. 9, 2014. In the U.S., New Jersey will be the first state to make the climate crisis part of its curriculum for all K-12 students. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP via Getty Images

New Jersey has invested in the future health of the planet by making sure the next generation of adults knows how human activity has had a deleterious effect on the planet. The state will be the first in the nation to make the climate crisis as part of its curriculum for all students, from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade, as NorthJersey.com reported.

Read More Show Less
Some reservations are reporting infection rates many times higher than those observed in the general U.S. population. grandriver / Getty Images

By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.

Read More Show Less

Trending

As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations. Sawitree Pamee / EyeEm

By Kaya Bulbul

The ocean is our lifeline - we rely on it for the food we eat, the air we breathe, as well as for millions for jobs worldwide.

As we continue to grapple with the issues of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change, there exists an opportunity to address these existential threats with new innovations, many of which unidentified or insufficiently supported.

Read More Show Less