The No. 1 Source of Pollution Might Surprise You

Farming and Fertilizer

Story at-a-glance -

  • The World Health Organization reports that global air pollution is worsening and linked to almost 3 million deaths annually
  • Air pollution created on industrial farms from the application of nitrogen-based fertilizer contributes heavily to both illness and a reduction in soil carbon
  • The combination of pollution and the loss of carbon in the soil, one result of using nitrogen-based fertilizers, is affecting estimated food supply in the next decade

By Dr. Mercola

Air pollution is a significant health risk linked to the deaths of 3 million people annually.1 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), of the cities that monitor air pollution, 80 percent have air quality that surpasses the minimum standards set by WHO.

Over the past two years, the database of cities that monitor pollution has nearly doubled. The increasing air pollution is linked to heart disease, lung cancer and acute and chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma.

Particulate matter floating in the air at sizes smaller than the human eye can see gets inhaled deep into your lung tissue, triggering an inflammatory response and leading to health problems. It is both the particle and the composition of the particle that leads to health conditions and early death.

Single Biggest Cause of Air Pollution

The No. 1 cause of air pollution in much of the U.S., China, Russia and Europe today is linked to farming and fertilizer — specifically to the nitrogen component of fertilizer used to supposedly enrich the soil and grow bigger crops.2

A new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, demonstrated that emissions from farming far outweighs other sources of particulate matter air pollution.3 As nitrogen fertilizers break down into their component parts, ammonia is released into the air.

Ammonia is one of the byproducts of fertilizer and of animal waste. When the ammonia in the atmosphere reaches industrial areas, it combines with pollution from diesel and petroleum combustion, creating micro-particles.

Members of Parliament in the U.K. have called for taking diesel cars off the road and not allowing vehicles producing large amounts of emissions to travel in larger cities.

While these recommendations address one part of the equation, the pollution from combustion engines, Parliament has not addressed the much greater problems of pollution from agricultural concerns.

This may be in part because the issue is so difficult to tackle without making major changes to industrial agriculture.

Pollution from the combination of ammonia and combustion is diffuse, traveling long distances across county and country borders. Reducing the amount of industrial pollution is the preliminary means both the U.K. and the U.S are using to address this issue.

Soil Depletion

Over the past decades, the soil in many areas of the country has been depleted of rich carbon sources necessary to grow healthy plants.4 The result has been the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, contributing to air pollution and the loss of carbon from the soil.

At a very steady and alarming rate, industrial agricultural methods have been depleting the soil of rich nutrients and resources, faster than they can be replenished. At the current rate, some scientists are concerned that soil erosion will present a huge risk in the next 10 years.5,6

The paper's lead author and University of California Berkeley professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, Ronald Amundson, Ph.D., says:

"Ever since humans developed agriculture, we've been transforming the planet and throwing the soil's nutrient cycle out of balance.

Because the changes happen slowly, often taking two to three generations to be noticed, people are not cognizant of the geological transformation taking place."7

The paper noted that soil erosion has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution and noted the supply of fertilizer as one of the key threats to the security of the soil to provide enough food.

The discovery of synthetic nitrogen production in the 1900s increased crop yields, but is very energy-intensive and dependent on fossil fuel.

Carbon loss in the soil is driven by land use. Tilling the soil, overplanting, drainage of peatlands and wetlands, deforestation, non-sustainable farming techniques, plowing and chemical fertilizers all contribute to the loss of carbon from the soil.8,9

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How Much Carbon Is Stored in the Soil?

The soil is a mass reservoir for carbon. Estimates are that 2,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the top 3 meters of the Earth's surface. One gigaton is equal to 1 billion tons.

Physical disruption of the soil, such as turning the soil or tilling, is one way that carbon from the soil is released into the air.10

With more recent research and a better understanding of how carbon sequestration in the soil affects the environment, more work is being done to study how land restoration programs may put carbon back into the soil and reduce the environmental effects.11

Adequate levels of carbon in the soil are critical to the storage of nutrients in the soil, water retention, soil structure and microbial activity.12 In other words, with declining soil carbon, the soil becomes merely dirt, unable to support plant growth.13

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen is found in the air, water and soil. It is important to plant growth. However, reactive nitrogen, a primary component in nitrogen-based fertilizers, is processed using large amounts of energy from coal and petroleum-burning engines, contributing to industrial pollution.

In the following step, when nitrogen is added to the soil in fertilizer form, it reduces the amount of sequestered carbon in the soil and affects the future ability of the soil to support plant growth.14,15 A reduction in plant growth leads to soil erosion, making a vicious cycle.

Alan Townsend, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, says:

"The nitrogen cycle has changed on a global scale to a remarkable extent, but the rate at which that plays out locally is hugely variable. There are major hot spots at all of the industrialized nations of the world.

We're seeing incredible increases [in reactive nitrogen use/production and resulting pollution] in the United States, much of Europe, and much of Asia and China now.

There are areas there, for example, that are seeing deposition from the atmosphere that is ten times or more what it was prior to human activity.

If you put a molecule of NOx in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion or a molecule of ammonium on an agricultural field as a fertilizer, you have a whole series, or cascade, of effects that goes from acid rain to particle formation in the atmosphere …

… [D]ecreasing visibility and causing impacts on human health, acid rain, soil and stream acidification, coastal eutrophication, decreasing biodiversity, human health issues in groundwater, and nitrous oxide [N2O] emissions to the atmosphere, which impact the greenhouse effect and stratospheric ozone."16

The Politics of Farming

Although oil and coal companies often don't have a seat at the table when environmental policy is written, the same is not true for companies who manufacture and produce fertilizer when agricultural policy is considered.

The fortunes of fertilizer companies are wrapped closely in agribusiness and mining nitrogen gas from the earth.17 After world leaders convened at a conference in Paris, only one intergovernmental initiative to deal with agriculture was formed. Interestingly, this initiative was controlled by the world's largest fertilizer company.

At the 2014 U.N. Summit on Climate Change, 29 of the founding members included three fertilizer industry lobby groups, a handful of organizations working with fertilizer companies and two of the largest fertilizer companies in the world, Yara of Norway and Mosaic of the U.S.18

Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers may reduce greenhouse emissions by up to 10 percent. There are no technical barriers to eliminating the use of chemicals on the land, except the fertilizer habit. Regenerative farming techniques are not out of reach, just different from conventional agricultural methods.

While the fertilizer companies would like you to believe they have your best interests at heart, they are big business and primarily in the business of making money. In 2007, during the food price crisis, the fertilizer companies hiked their prices, citing an increase in the cost of raw materials. However, the profits for both Yara and Mosaic rose by a stunning 100 percent that year.19

Carbon-Based Farming

Regenerative agricultural processes are the key to reviving the quality of the soil on the Earth, increasing the food yield per acre and reducing the negative impact on the soil and the environment. The ability of the farmer to feed future generations is compromised a little more every year chemical fertilizers are used.

Soil science professor and founder of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, Rattan Lal, Ph.D., believes carbon farming is the new agriculture, able to revive the soil and build organic soil carbon over time.20

The process of carbon farming takes carbon dioxide from the air through land management practices, such as no-tilling and no nitrogen-based, chemical fertilizers, and transfers it to a pool of organic carbon in the soil. Other land-management practices include adding animal manure and compost to the soil, reducing water loss and conserving nutrients.

Farmer Gabe Brown, from Bismarck, North Dakota, uses these practices on his family farm. Since taking over in 1991, he's improved the carbon reserve in the soil on his farm and the yield of crops per acre. Another strategy Brown uses is to plant oats and clover in the same field. Once the oats are harvested he releases livestock into the field to eat the clover and deposit manure.21

Lal emphasizes that carbon farming is not limited to large agricultural concerns, but can also be practiced at parks by state and local governments, large golf courses, erosion-prone areas, and even in your own backyard.

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