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

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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.  

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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  • Kyle Robins

    I believe the benefits of fertilizer use are certainly worth the negative effects on the ecosystem. As stated in the article, farmers use fertilizer in order to maintain and continue to use the land that they have. Rather than harvesting land and clearing new places to farm, growers can use the same land year after year in order to keep producing good quality crop. With innovations in agriculture and engineering I believe that we will be create less harmful fertilizers while also being able to reduce the damage to water supplies. The solution is not to cut the use of fertilizers, but to improve the technology behind improving the substances and their outcomes. #MYCMSTARGS #DONOWUFERTILIZER

    • Kyle Robins

      Hello Kyle,
      Since no one has responded to your comment, I will take the liberty to further the discussion. I agree with what you have stated above. According to this article by Jeff Williams he states that advancements in fertilizer is one of the only methods for us to feed the entire world. We must invest more time and energy into improving it, rather than divesting away. #MYCMSTARGS #DONOWUFERTILIZER

    • Owen Smith

      I agree with a lot of what you are saying. While I think we need to look at all options available to cut back on environmental damages, the scenarios you listed are smart and adequate scenarios. Your suggestions are ones that I can agree with, and ones that seem as though they could become a possibility in the future. The one area where I disagree with you, is that I believe we need to look at ALL of our options that will reduce water and environmental damage, including possibly cutting the use of these dangerous products until they are improved. However, overall I agree with you and appreciate your propositions, as well as your ability to find a post to comment on.

    • Justis Haruo Kusumoto

      I disagree, as the negative impacts of fertilizer use on the environment far outweigh any economic benefit to farmers and society as a whole. While in the short term regulations on fertilizers may affect food markets, organic farming is already more profitable than farming that relies heavily on the use of fertilizers, according to the Washington Post So, not only are there little economic benefits to farmers, but organic farming has the potential for greater profits, and environmentally would be much safer and socially beneficial than large-scale use of fertilizers. It’s important to note in the KQED article that entire aquatic ecosystems have been turned into “dead zones” some spanning nearly the entire area of the Gulf of Mexico.

  • Owen Smith

    I believe, that while it plays a key role in one of America’s most important and dominant industries, fertilizer poses such a list of environmental woes that some sort of regulation needs to be put into place. This could be done through more intelligent farming processes, more healthy and natural fertilizer options, government enforced farming regulations, or through a variety of other courses of action. Agriculture plays such a key role in California’s and America’s economy that it is hard to try and limit it in any way. However, considering all of the damaging effects that uncontrolled fertilizer can produce (including unhealthy running water, dangerous pesticides, erosion, dead zones where rivers meet the ocean, improper light filtration within water, and a continuous list of other negatives) it is hard to deny that something must change. I’m not saying we should eliminate the use of the product, but smarter and more more regulated use must be employed. The damage it does to water quality, as well as wetlands and areas surrounding water sources, is a clear message that something has to change.

    • Trevor Ramsey

      I agree with your opinion that something must change in order to protect our aquatic systems. The above article states that modern day farmer’s use artificially produced fertilizers. Perhaps the “change” you refer too does not need to be something new. Instead, simply go back to more traditional farming practice that does not rely on artificial sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. While the site is a little hard to read, goes over the multiple forms of traditional farming methods that are able to reduce the possibility of groundwater contamination. #MyCMSTArgs #DoNowUFertlilizer

    • Mark Isberg

      I agree that fertilizers are Important to Crop yield and may not become completely obsolete, but the impact they have on the environment is completely unacceptable. Until environmentally safe fertilizers are created, I believe strict regulations are necessary, especially in areas close to water resources. #DoNowUFertilizer #MyCMSTArgs

  • Trevor Ramsey

    Fertilizers are very important in sustaining the growth of crops, however agricultural activates are the primary cause of water pollution. In Environmental Science: A Study of Interrelationships, co-authors Enger and Smith describe how the over use of fertilizers result in eutrophication in aquatic habitats. These “dead zones” can be prevented with the use of a conservation buffer that prevents the fertilizer surface runoff entering aquatic zones. Other organic farming methods like rotating crops, slash burn and enhancing organic matter would reduce possible groundwater contaminations while still producing substantial yields. #MyCMSTArgs #DoNowUFertilizer @KQEDedspace

  • Justis Haruo Kusumoto

    Should the U.S. government restrict fertilizer use to improve water quality? Why or why not? #DoNowUFertilizer
    The US government should restrict fertilizer use to improve water quality, as there is ample scientific evidence and large scale examples of fertilizer use causing groundwater contamination, algae blooms in large bodies of water such as oceans and lakes, and organic farming is a clear alternative to fertilizer use. According to the University of Vermont, fertilizers often cause serious damage to ecosystems through surface runoff and contamination of groundwater, often threatening human populations. Considering that many regions rely off of groundwater reservoirs for their water supply, this also threatens humans on a large scale. Algae blooms are a second major justification for restrictions of fertilizers. As the KQED article points out, algae blooms can cause massive decay of aquatic ecosystems that lose oxygen and sunlight from algae blooms, some as large as the Gulf of Mexico.

    Organic farming is a major and already prevalent alternative to fertilizer use, so restricting fertilizer use would not cause a massive crisis in the food industry, or threaten our food supply in the long term. If anything, it would probably help because it would reduce contamination of water sources needed to sustain farmland and agriculture through the coming decades.

  • Mark Isberg

    I believe that the negative effects of on ecosystem far outweight the benefits of fertilizer for crop production, especially in areas in close proximity to water supply. Hypertrophication from fertilizer runoff is a huge detriment to marine plant and animal life. Allowing artificial fertilizer use to continue while environmental “dead zones” expand creating areas of underwater barren wasteland the size of small states is unacceptable. Fertilizer use must be regulated to protect aquatic life, and our water supply. #DoNowUFertilizer #MyCMSTArgs

  • charles5674

    To save water we need to reduce the use of fertilizer in the water. For this we request the government to take a step to stop this forever. I hope we find more better decision from here.

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