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

David Festa

This post was updated on Feb. 29, 2016.

During the summer of 2014, 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 crop-based carbon standards is setting a strong precedent.

Last year, the California Air Resources Board approved its first crop-based carbon offset protocol, which will let American rice growers earn additional revenue for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation. We expect the first credit sales to occur this spring.

Environmental Defense Fund is now is working with partners to develop a second protocol that will award 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.

Among our goals for 2020 is to have North American carbon markets drive efficiencies at farms and ranches equivalent to taking one million cars off the road.

2. Walmart, food companies are 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.

We project 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 we continue to work with food companies and agribusinesses over the next five years, we expect to help 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.

And in March 2016, EDF launched the NutrientStar program, a robust review process we developed with independent scientists 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.