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
AUDIO: NPR

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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Should the U.S. Government Restrict Fertilizer Use to Improve Water Quality? 8 March,2017SENCER
  • 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 http://seekingalpha.com/article/529191-advances-in-fertilizer-technology-can-help-feed-the-world 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.
      #MYCMSTARGS #DONOWUFERTILIZER

    • 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 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/is-organic-agriculture-really-better-for-the-environment/2016/05/14/e9996dce-17be-11e6-924d-838753295f9a_story.html?utm_term=.6d833ba96b90. 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.
    http://www.uvm.edu/~vlrs/doc/lawnfert.htm
    #MYCMSTARGS #DONOWUFERTILIZER

    • 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, Infocollection.org 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, http://www.uvm.edu/~vlrs/doc/lawnfert.htm 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.

  • Ben Forbes

    I think that fertilizers need to be regulated because it can effect lakes that people swim in. if the lake is at the bottom of a hill near farm land the fertilizer will run off into the lake and cause bad things to happen to the wildlife in the lake as well as the people who swim in it being affected.
    #ENVI110 #DoNowU

  • Kyler Staley

    I do feel like the Government should restrict it because we need to save as much of water we possibly can.

    • Kyler Staley

      #ENVI110

  • Alex Oladimeji

    I believe that the US should reduce the use of fertilizer for better water quality. The water quality decreases significantly every day and it is effecting human health on a significant level. #Envi110

  • Dustin Follmer

    Even though fertilizer is an essential aspect of agriculture and farming, I think it is of extreme importance to limit the intake on how much can be used in one area. Water pollution is a major problem and with fresh water sources diminishing more and more daily, we should do all we can to preserve it. Outlawing fertilizers and pesticides would be too extreme of a measure in my opinion, but the level of intake per area should be limited. #envi110

  • Ashley Pugh

    I think that the discussion whether or not to use fertilizers is kind of open ended. The benefits they talked about are right on point along with the negatives. It is hard to go either or. The negatives that make it so hard to really back fertilizers include the algae and then the benefits that make it hard include the fact that farmers plants last longer and can just continue to regrow every year. #envi110

  • Nicole Griffin

    I think there should be some restrictions on where fertilizer should be used so we are not contaminating extra water. There could be a set number of farms on who can use fertilizer to prevent having more adverse affects on the environment than needed. I believe that the use of fertilizer is not worth the negative affects that happens to the environment and maybe it could be possible in the future to find another way to have crops flourish. #ENVI110

  • Ksmith122

    It seems the negatives from using fertilizer are not worth the risks and damage they cause. It’s a good idea to at least look into reducing use until a better alternative can be applied on a large scale. #ENVI110

  • Keegan Bowman

    I don’t think the government should restrict the fertilizer usage due to the amount of fertilizer we need for farming and producing food. #Envi110

  • Bailey Martin

    To save water and improve water quality I think there should be restrictions on the use of fertilizer. However, I don’t think that there will ever be an agreement with this. #ENVI110

  • Jimmy L.

    I believe we need to
    look at all of our options that will reduce environmental
    damage and water, including possibly cutting these ways until they are improved and 100% okay to use. #envi110

  • Kole Risner

    I think that there definitely be a restriction on fertilizer to improve the water quality so that environments outside of fields do not get harmed. It can possibly harm our drinking water as well as other species that it can affect.

  • Olivia Stewart

    I see both sides to these. I grew up with my grandfather being a farmer so I understand the importance of the fertilizer. However, learning more about the harmful affect I see why changes need to be made. I think it would be great to find an alternative way for the crops that would not be harmful to the water quality. I think if this is brought up and more people knew about it then there would be a bigger push to find an alternative way. #envi110

  • PrimeTime Pitts

    We should always be working towards
    reducing & saving water for reason of survival. If there is anything making a water supply worse then yes resrict it.
    – Deshaun Jackson

  • Dakota Short

    Fertilizers play a vital role to farming and I do believe that they should be used. But when it becomes a problem to the environment that’s when things get tricky. I feel like the government should be putting restricting the areas that these fertilizers are used. If they are bring used close to a water supply they shouldn’t be able to use them. #Envi110

  • Kayla

    I believe the government should place tighter restrictions on fertilizer use, especially because of the conditions our plaent are in. Nationwide, water quality is rapidly depleting and the restrictions could possibly drastically decrease this decline in quality. I believe clean water is more important than fruitful crop production. #ENVI110

  • Kellie Schlangen

    I like how this article expresses how important fertilizing is in the world. This article explains all of the negatives to not having correct fertilization. It is important to see how much of an impact something that we don’t often think about has. #envi110

  • Jason Sullivan

    I believe in order to save water quality we should definitely start restricting usage of fertilizer the way we are now, while it does have benefits in the agricultural industry it is simply not worth harming our water quality. #ENVI110 #DoNowYouFertilizer

  • luke kerstiens

    I feel like farmers should use fertilizers, but there should be a healthy amount for them to put on their fields. Don’t use to little fertilizers or you won’t produce a good crop that year of if the farmers use to much it will get to expansive. So there is a healthy mix in between there for the farmer to use. So that the farmer does spend to much money on fertilizers, and so that they do use to much to hurt the environment. #ENVI110

  • Sally Roberts

    I think that it is a good idea for fertilizer to be reduced. if it has a major negative effect something should be done to fix that.

  • Alicia Moss

    I personally believe the best route to take would be to limit fertilizer use. The safety of those ecosystems is far more important than producing a mass yield of crops, which only benefits humans rather than hundreds of species that may exist in those locations. Unfortunately, I find it hard to foresee any action taken by the government since farming is such a large industry and many individuals seem to value human lives over the well-being of the rest of the world.

    #DoNowUFertilizer #Envi110 #Envi 110

    • Nadine Salas

      I believe that organic farming can both aid in mass production of crops ( since agriculture is such a huge resources for the demand on consumption) as well as being sustainable. Organic farming uses organic fertilizers such as compost to achieve the same agricultural goals as synthetic fertilizers! #Mycmstargs

  • MaKaiya Betts

    I think the government should restrict it because it’s polluting the water really bad. This makes the fish in the water die much faster because of this. #ENVI110

  • Cora Kelsheimer

    I feel that this is a great article on how to improve water quality. #ENVI110

  • JustAnotherStupidKid

    As a girl who grew up with a dad that farms, I learned about how negative unnatural fertilizer can be. It really needs to be controlled to stop the pollution of water that a lot of people depend on for drinking, washing, and cleaning with. #envi110

  • Ariel Danielle

    I think we should use natural fertilizer. It does not have all the harmful ingredients in it like processed fertilizer does. If it is used, I agree that there should be more efforts to try and regulate it so it does not hurt the environment and protects aquatic life. #ENVI110

  • Ariana

    Fertilizer should not be banned, but regulated because it is just as important for the use of crops, as it is for water quality. #envi110

  • Caroline Heath

    I think we should no longer fertilizer for our crops. I belive that the negative effects to our environment out way the positive effects. There are other ways that we could help crops grow that wouldn’t damage our environment or drinking water.
    Caroline Heath #ENVI110 #DoNowUFertilizer

  • isaac sha

    #envi110 #donowufertilizer I believe that restricting fertilizer will harm field and grass by allowing pesticides hurt the greens that cover the earth.

  • Allysa Rangel

    It’s important to bring up topics like this one so that people realize what our man-made products are doing to kill the environment.

  • Corbin Settergren

    Yes the U.S. government should restrict fertilizer use to improve water quality. This is very important because our water quality is going down the drain, no pun intended. It is very important to keep a high water quality.

  • Marcus Taylor

    I believe that the government should definitely restrict fertilizer use to improve water quality. There are some advantages for using the fertilizer yes, but the negatives effects outweigh the positive effects of using this in the ecosystem. #ENVI110

  • Sasha Wagner

    I think the government should restrict the use of fertilizer. I think at this point there is enough research and evidence to support that argument that it is doing more harm to our water than what it is worth. As stated above, “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 that 400 dead zones worldwide, equaling more than 94,000 square miles of ocean.” In my eyes this is unacceptable.

    #ENVI110 #DONOWUFERTILIZER

  • Aria Brinza

    I do think that fertilizer use should be reduced. However, I do not think it should be completely prohibited. Although fertilizer has negative effects on water quality, it has several other benefits on land. There are other ways to improve water quality so again, I do think the use of fertilizer should be reduced but not completely prohibited.
    #ENVI110 #DoNowUFertilizer

  • Terry Hooker

    Fertilizers shouldn’t be restricted, it needs to be used with precaution so that people don’t over use fertilizers and cause problems with the water.
    #ENVI

  • Annie Gillum

    I think that the government should put a restriction on the usage of fertilizer so we can save our water. We want to have the best water quality that we can and fertilizer is not helping us. The benefits of using fertilizer is a lot less important than saving our water quality. #Envi110

  • Jimmy L.

    I believe we need to look at all of our options that will reduce environmental damage and water, including possibly cutting these ways until they are improved and 100% okay to use. #envi110

  • Soh Wah

    I think we have to do something about it because water is so important for everybody. Not only for farmers, but also people that live in the country. We have to look around and see what we have to do to fix it because it something that can hurt many things in this world. #envi110

  • Kamae Sutton

    I believe that the government should intervene in our communities and regulate the usage of fertilizers. These fertilizers not only gets into the air and damages crops, but they leak into our waters….causing our water to be of lesser quality. I truly believe that the beginning of water contamination is the beginning of the end #ENVI110

  • Skylar

    Since there is a chance of chemicals being used to make the fertilizer, then the use of fertilizer should be restricted to areas that are far from any water supply. #Envi110

  • Nadine Salas

    I think so, I understand that farmers have been making efforts to reduce their footprint in crop run off however the efforts have not ceased the negative effects produced by fertilizers. Fertilizers runoff into the soil and bodies of waters are producing large dead zones and contaminating drinking water for citizens, the nutrient compound of the fertilizers encourage rapid algae growth as well as water pollution. Farmers have been making efforts to reduce the negative effects however the fact still remains, and having to ban nearly half a million people from drinking their own tap water is a price that is unnecessary to pay ( as according to the Npr podcast) Unnecessary when measures such as organic farming is available, which replaces synthetic fertilizers with organic ones, such as compost and manure. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations, organic farming is often used as a restorative measure of areas whom have a substantial amount of water pollution. http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/ #DoNowUFertilizer #MyCmstArgs

    • Stone Dennison

      Given all the facts of the situation.. Something needs to be put into place to protect the communities faced with these unfair conditions. Safe drinking water is recognized as a human right by the United nations, and it should be our government as well. Anything infringing on these basic human rights should be ceased immediately. The use of fertilizer safely should be allowed, but precautions should be implemented to prevent any further prolongation of current conditions. For more context.. http://www.fao.org/docrep/w2598e/w2598e06.htm #myCMSTArgs #DoNowUFertilizer

  • Stone Dennison

    If the chemicals have a possibility of causing damage: monetary or health wise.. I believe the government should have a regulatory agency look into the problem to help prevent pollution of any sort. If something can impact the health of a community, it should be regulated. Fertilizers are often over applied, we should work on creating a more economical way of use. There need be systems in place to cease contamination of any sorts. Our health is more important than the farmers making a couple extra dollars.. #myCMSTArgs #DoNowUFertilizer

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