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Industrial Ag Triggers Devastating 'Web' of Pollution

New report analyzes impact of excessive nitrogen and phosporous in our ecosystems

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

A new report published Monday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) implicates the global industrial farming system in the disastrous impacts that fertilizer abuse and waste are having on our natural world.

Entitled "Our Nutrient World," (.pdf) the report examines how industrial farming has forced a superabundance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients into our ecosystems, massively altering the natural balance and causing a "web of water and air pollution."

The run-off of excessive nutrients into our rivers, lakes and streams is creating aquatic dead zones through a process of eutrophication, during which excessive growth of toxic algae blooms destroys the ecosystem and poisons the fish and other water life.

Similarly, the excess of nitrogen being pumped into the environment also contributes to air pollution, and hence global warming, by releasing harmful greenhouse gases called oxides into the atmosphere.

In a post on their Planet Earth Online blog, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council explains: 

Although our atmosphere is around 80 percent nitrogen, it's unreactive and stabilises the atmosphere. But plants can't use this unreactive form, so in order to be useful to plants and animals it needs to be converted to compounds like nitrate and ammonia in a process that also creates the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

According to the report's lead author, Professor Mark Sutton from Britain's Center for Ecology & Hydrology, humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen going into the environment over the past 100 years.

Indicating the difference between polluting, industrial agriculture and agro-ecological or traditional techniques, the Independent writes, "Fertilising crops was originally a natural process, using plants which 'fix' nitrogen from the air, such as clover and other legumes, or by the application of animal manure." However, since the development of large-scale, industrialized agriculture, increasingly large amounts of manufactured fertilizer have been applied to our croplands.

"Unless action is taken," UNEP warns, "increases in pollution and per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity."

Meat production—namely the crops used to feed livestock—accounts for 80% of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in farming, according to the report. On top of that, the intense run-off of nutrient-infused animal waste at large-scale meat manufacturing facilities contributes significantly to fertilizer pollution in bodies of water.

Falling short of calling an end to fertilizer use, the report recommends cutting annual consumption by 20 million metric tonnes by the end of the decade through a series of recommendations including "connecting arable and livestock farming to improve nutrient recycling opportunities," and "lowering personal consumption of animal protein among populations consuming high rates." 

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