Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment – A farmer sprays fertilizer on a sheep grazing field in New Zealand. Credit: Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo.

The invention of nitrogen fertilizer has been called “the most important invention of the twentieth century.” The additional nutrients added to crops have allowed the world’s population to boom – from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to nearly 7.8 billion today.

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

But while fertilizers have allowed food production to expand around the world, the intensification of agriculture has come at a cost — to the environment, climate, and the health of people, animals, and soils alike, scientists tell Carbon Summary.

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Global fertilizer production is responsible for approximately 1.4% of annual CO2 emissions, and fertilizer use is a major contributor to non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

Now scientists and farmers face a new dilemma: how to feed a growing population while reducing agriculture’s impact on the climate and environment.

Some are trying to eliminate fertilizer use altogether, while others are investigating how to reduce the amount of nutrients lost through improved fertilizer use and management. Others are trying to recover lost nutrients from the waste, so they can be recycled back on the farm.

While the issue of agricultural emissions is starting to make its way into international climate negotiations, there is still a long way to go, one scientist tells Carbon Summary. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year – and subsequent sharp rises in fertilizer prices – have made many researchers optimistic that change is on the horizon.

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In this article, Carbon Brief explores the history of fertilizer use, the climate costs of agricultural industrialization, and how the world can reduce its over-reliance on fossil fuel-based synthetic fertilizers.

Besides carbon dioxide and water, plants need three essential nutrients in large quantities to grow: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These nutrients, which are absorbed from the soil by the plant’s root system, have several different roles to play.

Among other things, nitrogen is a major component of chlorophyll, which is essential for photosynthesis, and amino acids, which are essential for plant growth. Phosphorus is heavily involved in the way plants produce energy. Potassium plays a key role in regulating how plants transport and use water.

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

Although nitrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, it exists primarily as “unreacted” nitrogen gas in the atmosphere. Its inactive nature means that plants are unable to incorporate this nitrogen into their cells. Instead, plants need a reactive or “bioavailable” form of the element in order to build new biomass.

Next Generation Fertilizers

In the absence of human intervention, plants maintain a delicate balance of nutrients in the soil. Some microbes live symbiotically with legumes and other plants, taking nitrogen gas from the air and “fixing” it into forms that plants can use, such as ammonia. The diagram below shows the processes that convert nitrogen into different forms in the soil.

A drawing showing how atmospheric nitrogen is converted into different forms of nitrogen in the soil. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While each of these three key nutrients is naturally present in soil, for thousands of years, humans have been adding more of them in the form of fertilizers to encourage plant growth and increase crop yields.

Fertilizers can generally be divided into two categories: organic fertilizers and mineral fertilizers, which are sometimes referred to as chemical or synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizers are together known as “NPK fertilizers”.

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Of the “eight major fertilizers” ranked by DTN, a US-based data and analytics company, three contain a mixture of nitrogen and phosphorus, four contain only nitrogen, and the rest are a potassium-containing product.

Today, the world uses more than 100 million tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers for its crops every year, according to data (pdf) from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). About half of this amount is used to boost cereal production – particularly maize, wheat and rice. In addition, about 50 million tons of phosphorus fertilizers and more than 40 million tons of potassium are used annually.

There are six companies with market capitalizations in the tens of billions of US dollars: Canadian Nutrin, Australian Wesfarmers, US-based CF Industries, SABIC Agricultural Nutrients (formerly Saudi Arabian Fertilizers Company), US-based Mosaic, and IC Group. the. , formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd.

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

As the map below shows, synthetic fertilizer use is high in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, where large-scale mechanized agriculture is the norm. Its use is also high in several large, fast-growing economies, including Brazil, China and India. In contrast, fertilizer use is low in most parts of Africa, with the notable exception of Egypt.

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Synthetic fertilizer use worldwide, in kilograms per hectare. Data includes nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilizers. Darker colors indicate increased fertilizer use; Lighter colors indicate reduced fertilizer use. Map by Joe Goodman of Carbon Brief. Adapted from Our World in Data (2013). Data source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021)

The designations employed and the presentation of material on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of Carbon Brief concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers. Its limits or boundaries.

This use varies widely around the world, depending on the types of crops grown, the quality of the soil, and a myriad of other factors. Nearly half of the fertilizers used in the United States are applied to corn fields, while soy crops are responsible for 40% of fertilizer consumption in Brazil, according to a 2017 report (pdf) from the International Fertilizer Association and the International Plant Nutrition Institute.

Fertilizer use is even more skewed in some other countries. For example, 83% of fertilizer used in Malaysia is used on oil palm plantations, while just under 90% of fertilizer use in New Zealand is for grasslands. These regional differences extend to the types of fertilizers used as well. Since soybeans, as with other legumes, are able to fix their own nitrogen, these farms require higher phosphorus inputs and lower use of nitrogen fertilizers.

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On an industrial level, nitrogen fertilizers are made using a chemical reaction known as the Haber-Bosch process. This reaction was initially developed in the early 1900s, burning fossil gas to produce hydrogen gas. The process then takes hydrogen and nitrogen from the air and crushes them together at high temperature and pressure to form ammonia, as shown in the diagram below.

A diagram showing the Haber-Bosch process. Methane is burned to produce hydrogen gas, which is combined with nitrogen gas at high temperature and pressure to produce ammonia gas. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in 1918 and 1931, respectively) in recognition of their work in developing the process and other high-pressure chemical reactions. However, it was not until the aftermath of World War II that fertilizer use began to rise worldwide. Since 1960, the amount of fertilizer used annually has increased nearly 10-fold, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

These increases in fertilizer use have gone hand in hand with increases in food yields – global cereal production has increased three or fourfold over the same period.

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“All the increased food demand of a growing population was made possible by this invention,” says Dr. JK Ladha, an agricultural scientist and soil microbiologist at the University of California, Davis.

The chart below shows how world population and fertilizer use have increased simultaneously since the end of World War II.

The use of synthetic fertilizers (red) and global population (blue) have increased sharply since the mid-20th century. Credit: EIP-AGRI (2016).

One often cited statistical estimate is that nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for feeding half the world’s population. However, this number is “really small”, says Professor Mark Sutton, an ecologist at the UK Center for Environment and Hydrology, who was one of the authors of the paper in which the figure originated.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Fertilizers

He explains that this figure is based on current diets, which have been enabled by the widespread use of fertilisers. “If we weren’t eating high-meat diets, the world would clearly feed more people using less fertilizer,” Sutton tells Carbon Summary:

“We wouldn’t have all those animal emissions if we didn’t have enough nitrogen to feed all those animals to increase our population.”

This rapid expansion in the use of synthetic fertilizers coincided with the Green Revolution, a large-scale drive to increase agricultural production around the world in the 1960s, especially in the Global South. The Green Revolution is associated with the development of new crop varieties – genetically modified to produce higher yields – and the increased use of agrochemicals, irrigation and mechanization. But all this increased productivity was only possible through increased fertilizer production, Sutton says:

Negative Effects Of Fertilizers On The Environment

“[Genetic engineering] was the engine of the Green Revolution — high-yielding genetic varieties — but the fuel of the Green Revolution, to power the engine, was fertilizer.”

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The mass adoption of synthetic fertilizers has come at a great cost to the environment. Because the Haber-Bosch process takes place at high temperature and pressure, the associated greenhouse gas emissions are significant.

In fact, ammonia production

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