Farmers have long relied on synthetic fertilizers to provide their crops with much needed nitrogen. Though nitrogen makes up 80% of our air, this gaseous state is unusable for plants. Fertilizers, on the other hand, are filled with nitrates, chemical compounds that provide plants with easily absorbed nitrogen.
While effective at helping plant life thrive, these synthetic fertilizers can start to cause more harm than good when they’re abused.
Relying heavily on nitrogen-based fertilizers is a classic example of a band-aid solution. It ignores the bigger issue, which typically stems from poor soil health. Though plants can’t use airborne nitrogen, healthy soil systems are able to naturally turn it into a plant-ready form through the process of biological nitrogen fixation. Soil with healthy organic matter can then store this nitrogen, making it easily available for plant life.
Though synthetic fertilizer provides plants with nitrates, it doesn’t improve the soil’s ability to create or store nitrates. In fact, recent studies show that nitrate fertilizers actually harm organic matter in soil. This weakens the effectiveness of fertilizer, as soil is less capable of absorbing and storing nitrates. The excess nitrates and other nutrients are instead washed away into local water supplies.
This, in turn, results in toxic pollution and algae blooms that often kill marine life, harm local wildlife, and may even pose a threat to local human populations. Meanwhile, because the fertilizer is less effective, farmers often utilize more fertilizer to make up the difference, leading to even weaker soil and more nutrients in local water supplies.
However, not all of the excess nitrogen gets washed away. Some of it evaporates into the air.
Under the right conditions, nitrogen can combine with oxygen to form nitrogen oxide (NO), also known as nitric oxide or nitrogen monoxide. Though NO is relatively harmless, it can gather additional oxygen, creating nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Higher concentrations of NO2 can result in a number of problems. Environmentally, NO2 is known to cause smog and acid rain. It’s also an irritant to humans, causing respiratory problems, asthma attacks, and heart disease.
NO2 is also a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, making it a serious threat to the future of our planet.
While cars and other machines have long been blamed for NO2 emissions, recent studies have highlighted agriculture’s contributions. Excess nitrates from fertilizers are consumed by microbes in the soil. These microbes then release NO as waste, which combines with atmospheric oxygen to create NO2.
Reducing Nitrogen Pollution and Fertilizer Dependency
Despite the potential drawbacks, fertilizers can still be an effective tool when utilized appropriately. Today’s farmers are becoming increasingly strategic about when fertilizer is applied, as well as what type of fertilizer is used. To protect soil and prevent runoff, many are also placing cover crop and buffer strips in key areas.
Still, in areas where soil has become severely damaged, further action may be needed.
The Conservation Reserve Program offers a great opportunity for farmers to take marginal land out of active crop production and establish native vegetation instead. This has been proven to restore soil health, provide habitat for wildlife, protect local water supplies, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. Farmers enrolled in CRP not only receive market-based rental payments for their land, but much of the establishment cost, such as buying CRP seed mixes, is covered under the program.
Though effective and rewarding, CRP can be complex for those unfamiliar with the program. If you’re interested in enrolling, but you’re not sure where to start, FDCE can help. We provide full-service solutions that take care of the entire establishment process for you. Contact us today to learn more about what FDCE can do for you.