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Should the U.S. Government Restrict Fertilizer Use to Improve Water Quality?

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Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie in October, 2011. (NASA)

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was developed by Collin Grayless, Aryn Long Suiter, Mariah Rodriguez and Robert Jackson, students in James Speer’s “Introduction to Environmental Sciences” class at Indiana State University.

Featured Media Resource

Lake Erie’s Toxic Bloom Has Ohio Farmers on the Defensive
This report from 2014 discusses the pollution of Toledo, Ohio’s drinking water and steps that farmers have been taking to reduce fertilizer runoff into Lake Erie.

Do Now U

Should the U.S. government restrict fertilizer use to improve water quality? Why or why not? #DoNowUFertilizer

How to Do Now

To respond to the Do Now U, you can comment below or post your response on Twitter. Just be sure to include #DoNowUFertilizer and @KQEDedspace in your posts.

Learn More About Artificial Fertilizers

Fertilizers have been used in agriculture since the beginning of domestication when animal manure was used to enrich the organic matter in soils. In the modern day, farmers use artificially produced fertilizer such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to increase growth and yield of their plants. Fertilizers can provide a benefit, but they can also contaminate freshwater and damage an area’s ecosystems. Nitrogen is a key element in fertilizer and provides necessary nutrients that encourage plant growth and increase yields. However, high concentrations contaminate surface and groundwater supplies. Phosphorus is naturally found in mineral deposits, but overuse causes an imbalance and creates water pollution. These three elements are also responsible for eutrophication in bodies of water. This is a process in which excess nutrients cause rapid growth of algae. As a result, the water turns green and becomes cloudy. As the algae die and decompose, the water is depleted of oxygen for fish and other species. Because this is nonpoint source pollution, meaning that it comes from the broad landscape rather than an identifiable source like a pipe or smokestack, it is harder to keep track of and especially hard to regulate and reduce.  


[media-credit name="U.S. EPA" link="https://cfpub.epa.gov/roe/indicator_pdf.cfm?i=55" align="alignright" width="640"]Fertilizer graph[/media-credit]

Fertilizer provides the elements that the plants use in order to make them grow faster, better, and healthier. Fertilizers are merely nutrients applied to cultivated fields to increase required elements found naturally in the soil. The use of fertilizer has permitted farmers to continuously attain rich harvests on the same land for years, thus reducing the need for clearing new lands. If farmland is overused from growing too many crops year after year without a chance for the soil to lay fallow and rest, the soils can become depleted of nutrients. This would potentially require farmers to move to new areas, which could result in clearing a new area of land. In this case, this also would leave the prior cropland bare and exposed to erosion. Other benefits of fertilizers are that they can increase the aesthetics of yards, golf courses, and other landscaped areas by making them fuller and greener. Proponents of fertilizer use say that it is necessary for our agricultural system and should not be regulated because if farmers put too little fertilizer on their crops, their yields could be greatly reduced or they could lose their crops all together.

This illustration shows the amount of silt, mud and debris in Chesapeake Bay waterways before (right) and after (left) exceptionally heavy rainfall in 2011. Nutrients from fertilizers also runoff land in this manner.
This illustration shows the amount of silt, mud and debris in Chesapeake Bay waterways before (right) and after (left) exceptionally heavy rainfall in 2011. Nutrients from fertilizers also runoff land in this manner. (NOAA)

On the other hand, fertilizers are expensive and often over-applied. By using less of it on their crops, farmers could save money, which would be good for the ecosystem as well. Overuse of fertilizer results in eutrophication of local ponds and dead zones. Dead zones are low-oxygen areas in lakes and oceans where little life exists. There are more than 400 dead zones worldwide, equaling more than 94,000 square miles of ocean. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is roughly the size of New Jersey, and it continues to grow. Another harmful effect of the algal blooms due to fertilizer runoff is that the algae covers the surface of the water making it harder for sunlight to penetrate and reducing the ability of underwater plants to perform photosynthesis. A few species of algae are known to produce toxins that can kill fish, birds and mammals, which can potentially cause health problems for humans when we eat those animals. In addition, these toxins, as well as excess nutrients from fertilizers, can contaminate drinking water supplies. Proponents of government regulation of artificial fertilizer use say the damage outweighs the gains and rules are necessary to reduce the effects of pollution throughout the United States. There are also alternatives to using artificial fertilizers, such as returning to organic farming and even pursuing permaculture, which can produce high yields of edible foods on smaller areas of land.

What do you think? Are the benefits of using fertilizer on crops and landscapes worth the negative effects on ecosystems? Should the government restrict fertilizer use to improve the water quality of lakes and coastal areas?

More Resources

Audio: NPR
What Is Farm Runoff Doing To The Water? Scientists Wade In
Learn how scientists tested streams for pesticides and fertilizers, and to see how they may be affecting aquatic life.

Website: University of Vermont
Environmental Impacts of Lawn Fertilizer
Read how lawn fertilizer affects groundwater, our water supply and the environment.

Video: Piotr Sokolowski
Eutrophication Animation
Learn about the process of eutrophication with this short animation.

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KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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