Nitrogen Fertilizer’s Double Whammy

Image: Mother Jones

Farmers rely on nitrogren fertilizer to cultivate their crops and feed our nation but the excessive application of the chemicals that help crops grow also pose serious environmental risks elsewhere. In addition to creating toxic runoff, the production of ammonia for fertilizer may result in up to 100 times more methane emissions than previously estimated. What’s truly startling? This figure is more than what the Environmental Protection Agency estimates all industries emit across the U.S.

Nothing Fun About These Facts:

–  The fertilizer industry results in 29 gigagrams of methane emissions a year – a far cry from the 0.2 gigagrams of methane a year reported by the EPA.

–  All other industries combined, including that of waste, chemical and metal production, produce only 8 gigagrams of methane emissions annually as estimated by the EPA – a mere 27% of the fertilizer industry’s emissions

The Foundation of Modern Agriculture: Before modern farming, people could only grow crops periodically as they had to wait for nutrients to be restored in the soil. Fertilizers, however, allow farmers to bypass this natural nitrogen cycle and continuously grow crops. Nitrogen-based ammonia fertilizer makes the agriculture industry function but is wreaking havoc on the environment as it’s produced and later when it runs off and enters bodies of water.

US Production: The United States is one of the world’s biggest producers and consumers of ammonia. From 2006 to 2015, domestic production of ammonia rose approximately 7.9 million metric tons to 9.4. But domestic production of ammonia, rather than being curtailed, is only ramping up. Since President Trump took office, his administration has been attempting to roll back methane regulations, eliminating barriers for polluters to emit methane, even going as far as calling natural gas “freedom gas”.

Why This Matters: According to UN estimates, the world’s population will reach 7.7 billion people by 2020. As more humans inhabit the planet it will only further place pressure on farmers to grow more food, more quickly. Not only would the increased use of nitrogen fertilizers cause harm to bodies of water, but its production will drastically worsen climate change, as emissions of methane have 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a century. Furthermore, co-pollutants associated with the production of methane, such as benzene and toluene, can cause long-term health risks to local communities.

As Mother Jones’ reporter Tom Philpott put it, we have to curb our deadly addiction to nitrogen fertilizer. We know how, we just need the will to do it. 

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