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Earth's growing nitrogen threat

It helps feed a hungry world, but it's worse than CO2.

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Nitrogen fertilizer being used on an Illinois farm.

NEWSCOM

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Dennis Lindsay still recalls the day four decades ago when his father, an Iowa farmer, began using nitrogen fertilizer on the family’s 160 acres.

With nitrogen, the family’s corn crop suddenly grew much higher and stronger, and produced full ears and big harvests. When fed to their cows and pigs, that high-quality corn produced far more milk and meat. As a result, the family bought more livestock – and the farm grew. “I remember Dad bringing the neighbors over to see how much greener and better the quality of the stalk was,” Mr. Lindsay says. “It was a really big deal then.”

It’s an even bigger deal today. Lindsay and his son farm 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, using about 150 tons of nitrogen fertilizer annually. Farmers from China, Europe, and South America rely on nitrogen, too, to make ends meet and feed a growing world.

Yet it’s also becoming clear that too much of a good thing can have a downside for the environment. The world is awash in man-made “reactive” nitrogen (the chemically active form), researchers say.

While greening farms worldwide, much nitrogen washes into lakes, rivers, and the sea, causing rampant algae growth. More nitrogen billows from power-plant smokestacks, blowing in the wind until it settles as acid rain. Still other nitrogen gases remain in the atmosphere consuming the ozone layer. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide – considered the leading cause of climate change – and the third most threatening greenhouse gas overall.

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