The Overuse of Inorganic Fertilizers in Modern Agriculture

Fertilizers are often thought of as a useful thing for agriculture.  However, the overuse of inorganic fertilizers can lead to negative environmental consequences.  Inorganic fertilizers can be detrimental to the environment, when abused.  Problems that can stem from overusing fertilizers include runoff and erosion, the contamination of water supplies, and disruptions to aquatic life.  As a society, we need to be aware of the consequences of relying on these substances.  What’s at stake, and what are the tradeoffs?  Are there any supposable alternatives that could be more ecological friendly and sustainable?

Nitrates, phosphates, and other nutrients are abundant in common agricultural fertilizers.  However, erosion causes the nutrients from these fertilizers to runoff into bodies of water.  While some people might think that more nutrients would be a good thing, the runoff can act as a pollutant when there’s a lot of it.  An overabundance of nutrients in bodies of water can create a phenomenon called cultural eutrophication.  Excess nutrients can cause immense algal blooms.  The large algae populations use up much of the dissolved oxygen in the water and create a thick layer on top of the water.  Essentially, this can create “dead zones” in bodies of water, where there is inefficient oxygen for natural biological activity.  Thick algal blooms can block out the sun, and hinder photosynthetic activity, thus creating a form of chain reaction.  Organisms that require more oxygen are unable to survive in these conditions, causing them to die out from the harsh environment.  For instance, The Gulf of Mexico suffers from dead zones and eutrophication.  Agricultural runoff from farmlands flows down the Mississippi river and into the Gulf of Mexico.  This has disrupted natural productivity and has affected fish populations in the Gulf.

One approach of tackling this issue is increasing legislature and regulations.  One example is the Safe Drinking Water Act, which sets to ensure the quality of drinking waters sources by setting limits on contaminants in them.  However, attempting to clean up pollution from unsatisfactory drinking water supplies is an immense challenge.  Fixing the aftermath of pollution might not be the ideal way to go.  Instead, taking a preventative approach for protecting the water supplies from pollution in a can be more effective than cleaning up the afterwards.  That is, laws and regulations should target reducing the runoff of fertilizers, finding ways to curb erosion, and potentially even altering the composition of fertilizers to make them more eco-friendly.

An additional potential way to reduce overusing fertilizers is exploring genetically modified crops.  If scientists can engineer crops that can grow with less nutrients and fertilizers, would this be acceptable?  GMO’s could create larger crop yields while requiring less fertilizers.  However, the use of GMO’s can be a somewhat controversial topic.  There usually are unforeseen environmental circumstances from using GMO’s, as society never would know how they would affect ecosystems before they are introduced.  Additionally, some consumers could become alienated towards purchasing and consuming these modified food products.  This alternate viewpoint transitions into the next potential approach – going organic.

Organic products have been on the rise, as of lately.  People may be skeptical to pesticides, inorganic fertilizes , GMO’s, and chemicals used on foods they put in their bodies.  These people would likely suggest the practice of organic agriculture, which uses few pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms.  The organic approach would suggest using organic fertilizers, such as compost, as opposed to inorganic fertilizers.  Locally, students at Penn State can see the compost bins placed across campus.  They can choose to compost their food items and help to promote a more ecological friendly fertilizer.  Most students at Penn State probably weren’t even that aware how useful composting could be.

Now, what farmers and food production companies have to look out for is how many people are demanding organic products.  If people become more sensitive of the ways their food is raised, they may be more inclined to purchase organic products, and likewise the producers would want to then raise food organically.  Evidently, this approach suggests that the issue lies in the hands of the consumers.  The way consumers want their products raised will have influences on the environment and the agricultural industry.

The overuse of inorganic fertilizers in modern agriculture can cause environmental consequences.  Aquatic life can be disrupted when excess fertilizers erode into water supplies, causing further issues towards ecological cycles.  While there is not a discrete solution, society has to seek ways of dealing with this issue, whether it ranges from experimenting with GMO’s to creating more laws or buying “organic food”.

Moritz, Mary Beth. “AP Environmental Science.” Cumberland Valley School District. CV Schools, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

One thought on “The Overuse of Inorganic Fertilizers in Modern Agriculture

  1. mbd5305

    I think the best approach is a GMO approach, for a few main reasons. It seems to be the best long-term option, would greatly limit the use of all types of fertilizers, and would be relatively inexpensive once implemented.
    As far as its long-term implications, modifying the genome of plants would be the gift that keeps on giving—once the DNA of these crops are modified, they’ll pass on these traits to future organisms, meaning it will be a one time cure other than mutations that occur simply due to bad luck. Some people might argue that modifying the genome of these plants is dangerous, and we can’t be exactly sure what the final product we’re producing is, but we’re on the cusp of new scientific discoveries in easy genome modification through the CRISPR-cas9 complex. This complex, present in most bacteria, is able to cleave DNA at very specific points and insert a new sequence into that spot. This allows for very simple point modifications that can help to limit use of fertilizers, along with other modifications. That is, we’ll be able to produce crops that are resistant to insects and bad conditions simply through an easy cleavage process. That aspect, that the technology is so simple, provides the final benefit in that the process would be relatively cheap once perfected. In all, I think GMO’s provide the best solution to the problem. I see the benefit of organics and measures against inorganic fertilizers, but if they’re rendered unnecessary through a long-term fix, it seems that would be the best option moving forward.

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