Synthetic fertilizers have dramatically increased food production worldwide. But the unintended costs to the environment and human health have been substantial. Nitrogen runoff from farms has contaminated surface and groundwater and helped create massive "dead zones" in coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico. And ammonia from fertilized cropland has become a major source of air pollution, while emissions of nitrous oxide form a potent greenhouse gas.
These and other negative environmental impacts have led some researchers and policymakers to call for reductions in the use of synthetic fertilizers. But in a report published in the June 19 issue of the journal Science, an international team of ecologists and agricultural experts warns against a "one-size-fits-all" approach to managing global food production.
"Most agricultural systems follow a trajectory from too little in the way of added nutrients to too much, and both extremes have substantial human and environmental costs," said lead author Peter Vitousek, a professor of biology at Stanford University and senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
"Some parts of the world, including much of China, use far too much fertilizer," Vitousek said. "But in sub-Saharan Africa, where 250 million people remain chronically malnourished, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrient inputs are inadequate to maintain soil fertility."
China and Kenya
In the Science report, Vitousek and colleagues compared fertilizer use in three corn-growing regions of the world--north China, western Kenya and the upper Midwestern United States.
In China, where fertilizer manufacturing is government subsidized, the average grain yield per acre grew 98 percent between 1977 and 2005, while nitrogen fertilizer use increased a dramatic 271 percent, according to government statistics. "Nutrient additions to many fields
|Contact: Mark Shwartz|