From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published December 15, 2011 12:04 PM

US Department of Agriculture Releases Stricter Standards for Decreasing Use of Fertilizers

The farming industry in the United States is second to none around the world. There are many reasons why US agriculture is so productive such as increased mechanization and refined practices to increase crop yields. Another major reason has to do with the nutrients added to the soil. Unfortunately, the overuse of fertilizer on US cropland has resulted in huge environmental problems. Plant nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus drain into waterways, polluting them and suffocating life by removing the oxygen. With little or no fanfare, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a document titled the National Nutrient Management Standard to address this rising environmental issue.

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Without the use of fertilizer, harvests would severely decrease, leading to food shortages in the US and around the world. The problem is ensuring that the fertilizer stays where it is needed, on the farm, and not allowing it to migrate offsite where it can enter rivers and lakes.

Once in the water, the overabundance of nutrients feed the growth of microbes and algae which populate rapidly, turning the water cloudy. The water then becomes inhospitable to other marine life because it reduces the oxygen levels.

There are even dead zones created in the sea. The Mississippi River carries tremendous amounts of fertilizer into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone the size of Rhode Island. Other areas like Chesapeake Bay have also suffered.

The USDA document lays out a stricter standard for farmers to reduce the amount of nutrients overloading the environment. Common sense things include only feeding the field as much as it needs. Rather than have a rigid schedule for spreading fertilizer, only do it when necessary. Also, efforts should be made to store and excess nutrients by planting winter crops that trap free nitrogen before it leaches into the groundwater.

The new standards are guidelines and not regulations. They are not enforceable by law. However, state governments can adopt them and make them mandatory.

USDA officials are also hoping the standards will be adopted voluntarily by farmers for economic reasons. Fertilizer is not cheap, so not wasting it can save a bundle of money, especially for cash-strapped farmers.

Link to USDA document: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1046177.pdf

Image credit: http://www.agmrc.org/renewable_energy/ethanol/using_the_wind_to_fertilize_corn.cfm

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