Four reasons fertilizer pollution may soon be a thing of the past

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Environmental Defense Fund’s blog.  We’re republishing an edited version here as part of our Business & Sustainability series, highlighting examples where businesses partnered with organizations like EDF to achieve both business success and sustainability goals. 

Note on our Business & Sustainability series: Initiatives like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) have become more popular as business recognizes the importance of sustainability.  But what is the business case for incorporating sustainable practices in business procedures?  Do companies see real returns to taking action on the sustainability front?  Further, how can consumers recognize when a company has truly incorporated sustainability into their core practices or is simply “greenwashing?”  Developing a sustainable future cannot be done without the help of business but these questions will need to be answered before businesses can really engage with sustainability.

Last summer, a toxic algae bloom contaminated the drinking water of nearly half a million Ohio residents. The culprit? Nutrient pollution caused by excess fertilizer that washes off farms and lawns into our waterways. It affects water quality in our rivers, lakes and oceans while also emitting nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. While we need fertilizers to increase farm productivity and feed a rapidly growing population, agricultural practices are now responsible for 10 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions – much of this from fertilizer pollution. But there’s hope. Here are four reasons I think this seemingly intractable problem may soon become a thing of the past:

1. California’s proposed crop-based carbon standards will set a strong precedent. The California Air Resources Board is considering a crop-based carbon offset protocol that will let American rice growers earn additional revenue for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation. If the protocol is approved this year, the door will be open for the state’s clean air agency to develop and approve a similar protocol that awards carbon credits for fertilizer optimization. This would give farmers and ranchers economic incentives to use fertilizer more efficiently and drive serious improvements in water quality along with emission reductions. One method of changing these incentives is the implementation of North American carbon markets.  Doing so could drive efficiencies at farms and ranches equivalent to taking one million cars off the road.

2. Walmart is creating demand for sustainably grown grains. As part of Walmart’s commitment to cutting 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from its supply chain, the company asked its top food suppliers to create fertilizer efficiency plans for their own supply chains. The 15 companies that responded represent no less than 30 percent of the food and beverage market in North America. Several of these food companies, such as Smithfield and General Mills, approached Environmental Defense Fund to help them create these efficiency plans and meet Walmart’s demand. EDF project’s that the existing commitments under Walmart’s fertilizer initiative will reduce fertilizer loss by up to 30 percent across 14 million acres, while cutting at least 7 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. And with Walmart driving demand for nutrient-efficient grains, look for additional food companies and retailers to get on board with fertilizer optimization. As more food companies and agribusinesses join this movement over the next five years, it could improve fertilizer efficiency and soil health on at least half of America’s vast corn acreages by 2020.

3. New technologies are helping farmers optimize fertilizer use. Fertilizer optimization tools enter the market on a regular basis. Already, platforms such as SUSTAIN, a fertilizer efficiency and soil health program run by United Suppliers, and Adapt-N, a breakthrough nitrogen use efficiency tool, are being used by General Mills and others to increase fertilizer efficiency. This year, EDF is also working with supply chain partners to promote the NutrientStar program, a robust scientific review process that EDF is developing to evaluate these and other tools. The process will make it easier for farmers and agribusiness to select the most effective and appropriate mechanisms to optimize their fertilizer use.

4. Farmers have an incentive to reduce fertilizer costs. Fertilizers are often applied to crops as a kind of insurance policy to protect yields – if some fertilizer washes away, the goal is to have enough remaining on the field to help sustain optimal crop production. It helps explain why farmers spend 25 percent of their operating costs on fertilizers. The problem is that this can result in unnecessary fertilizer application – and in high costs for the farmer. Fortunately, the new tools in development can potentially lower farmers’ operating costs while still maintaining high yields – another powerful economic incentive for farmers to optimize their fertilizer use.


Image credit courtesy Wikimedia Commons by Lynn Betts depicting fertilizer being applied to a corn farm in Iowa, USA.


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