All over the world, synthetic fertilizers have radically increased food production. However, the unintended cost to the environment and human health has also been significantly high. Owing to the repercussions, synthetic fertilizers have acquired a negative reputation in recent decades for causing serious ecological damage when farmers use them in excess.
There is a constant debate on the very need of chemical fertilizers. Some activists contend that these products have no place on today's farms. On the other hand, the low productivity of farms in many of the world's economically weaker regions highlights what a lack of fertilizer can signify.
A scientific report of three corn growing regions of the world highlights massive imbalances in nitrogen fertilizer use, resulting in malnourishment in some areas and pollution problems in others. A new report in the Science magazine points out that a better balance needs to be struck in the widely disparate use of fertilizer around the world. The report notes that in the US, the nutrients added into fertilizers are at acceptable levels but in China they are still too high which can be potentially dangerous.
There are farmers in many parts of the world such as Africa, who are not aware of any alternate methods of taking care of nutrient depleted soil. Sharing knowledge in this respect amongst farmers is a major goal of the FAO. Food and Agriculture Organization is encouraging farmers to use organic fertilizers that also have the potential to increase the nitrogen content in the soil. There are other methods such as crop rotation that can also be utilized to increase the productivity.
Nitrogen runoff from farms has managed to contaminate not just surface water but also ground water in certain coastal areas like Gulf of Mexico. In fact, many regions along the Gulf are labeled as dead zones as these areas cannot harbor living organisms due to high nitrogen content in the water. Ammonia from fertilized farms has become a major source of air pollution, while emissions of nitrous oxide are dangerous and add to the already existing greenhouse gases. Reports project that some parts of the world, including much of China, use far too much fertilizer, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, where 250 million people remain chronically malnourished, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient inputs are inadequate to maintain soil fertility. As per the government statistics, in China, where fertilizer manufacturing is government subsidized, the average grain yield per acre grew to 98 percent between 1977 and 2005, while nitrogen fertilizer use increased a dramatic 271 percent. The fertilizers used in many parts of China far exceed in nutrient levels compared to fertilizers used in the United States and northern Europe and most of the excess fertilizer ends up polluting both air and water sources.
Since the 1980s, the European Union has put into place stringent regulations and policies with regard to fertilizers with the hope of curbing fertilizer pollution. Even individual countries of the Union have their own policies and regulations which are equally stringent. This has resulted in the reduction of nitrogen levels in water bodies across northern Europe. However, the problem of solving the excess nitrogen runoff into water sources is not an easy task for any country in Europe.
Politicians and agricultural governing bodies in Europe will have to take tough decisions to ensure that food production practices are changed. Only then can Europe benefit from these policies and aim to achieve acceptable nitrogen levels in water bodies where currently they are too high.
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