Stories tagged fertilizer

Yup, it's Friday.
So let's not beat around the bush.

Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Malcolm Beck was farming organically in the 1950s, and that's how he got into compost. What started out as a little manure pile on his farm became a 40-acre compost-processing business five decades later. Beck sold his company, Garden Ville, but still works there and is constantly experimenting with different fertilizer formulas--from bat guano to earthworm tea.

When San Antonio’s Malcolm Beck got into the compost business over fifty years ago, many people had never heard of compost, Beck says. Beck began making it for his organic farm and found that his compost more profitable than produce. Science Friday stopped by for a tutorial in the art of composting.

Malcolm Beck's website

Sep
23
2010

You might be aware of phosphorus, P, as a key ingredient in your lawn fertilizer. Or, perhaps you’ve seen “Does not contain phosphates” labels on your household detergents. If you haven’t seen these labels yet, chances are high you’ll see them soon. Why??

Phosphorus is Useful as Fertilizer and Detergent...

Fertilizer with P: See the N-P-K?  The P stands for phosphorus.  The number 21 below it tells us the percent of P in the fertilizer.  Many lawn fertilizers are now 0% P.
Fertilizer with P: See the N-P-K? The P stands for phosphorus. The number 21 below it tells us the percent of P in the fertilizer. Many lawn fertilizers are now 0% P.Courtesy Malawi MV project work

Phosphorus is a life-supporting mineral, which is why so many fertilizers contain it. Phosphates, the naturally occurring form of phosphorus, help soften water, form soap suds, and suspend particles making them choice detergents. Supporting life and keeping clean would normally be good things, but phosphorus has a dark side too.

... But, Phosphorus Causes Smelly, Dead Eutrophication

Because phosphorus is so good at growing stuff, it is actually harmful to the environment when it becomes dissolved and concentrated in bodies of water. Phosphorus-rich lakes cause algae blooms – huge increases of algae in a short period of time (kind of like the post-World War II Baby Boom, but for algae). Besides being smelly and turning water green, algae “breathe” the oxygen right out of the lake! Stealing dissolved oxygen even in death, algae create hypoxia – low oxygen, which prevents most other living things from surviving in the surrounding area. This whole process, from phosphorus-loading to algae bloom to hypoxia, is called eutrophication. There are other environmental and health risks to phosphorus, but eutrophication is what politicians are talking about around the water cooler these days.

Icky Algae Bloom: Algae blooms occur in nutrient-loaded water bodies and often led to hypoxia in a process called eutrophication.
Icky Algae Bloom: Algae blooms occur in nutrient-loaded water bodies and often led to hypoxia in a process called eutrophication.Courtesy Felix Andrews

Seventeen States Banned Phosphorus in Automatic Dishwashing Detergents

Deciding that euthrophication was yucky, in July, 17 states, including the entire Great Lakes Commission of which Minnesota is a member, passed laws banning phosphates from automatic dishwasher detergent. That might not seem like a big deal, but automatic dishwasher detergent is said to comprise between 7-12% of all the phosphorus making it into our sewage system (source). Previous legislation has limited or banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizers and laundry detergents.

Consumers Asked to Cope

According to a recent New York Times article, some consumers are getting their feathers ruffled as detergent manufacturers re-do their formulas to comply with state laws. The primary complaint is that the phosphate-free detergents don’t clean as well as traditional formulas. Consumer Reports concurred: of 24 low- or no-phosphate detergents tested, none matched the cleaning capabilities of detergents with phosphates. It may be uncomfortable at first, but learning to cope in a low-phosphorus world is already having environmental and human health benefits.

Green Cleaning: There are several line of green cleaning products that contain low- or no-phosphates.
Green Cleaning: There are several line of green cleaning products that contain low- or no-phosphates.Courtesy Becoming Green

Rest assured, industry officials still want your business and are continually improving their formulations. Indeed, the same Consumer Reports article mentioned above rated seven low- or no-phosphate detergents as “very good.” For the curious, there is a multitude of other websites reviewing phosphate-free detergents online. Pre-rinsing and/or post-rinsing have also been cited as ways to deal with phosphate-free dishwashing detergents.

Peak Phosphorus: Another Consideration

If you still aren’t convinced of the switch, consider this: we’re running out of phosphorus like we’re running out of oil. Phosphorus is a mineral, mined from naturally occurring phosphates, and we’re mining it faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. One Scientific American article cites the depletion of U.S. supplies in a few decades (world supplies may last for roughly another 100 years) given current consumption rates. Without phosphorus, world food production will plummet and with a global population soaring towards 9 billion people, that would be a very sorry state of affairs. If we succeed in limiting our phosphorus consumption, say, through eliminating it from household detergents, we may be able to continue using it in fertilizers and thus keep the human population fed well into the future.

What do you think? Is the phosphate-ban worth it?

Jun
25
2010

Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.

Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today.  Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people...  What if we built high rise greenhouses?
Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today. Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people... What if we built high rise greenhouses?Courtesy Curbed SF

Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.

However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??

Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.

In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.

Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.

Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil.  Weird, but true!  Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath.  Could this be the future of farming?
Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Weird, but true! Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath. Could this be the future of farming?Courtesy pchic

Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,

“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”

That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.

Mar
17
2010

Nom nom nom!
Nom nom nom!Courtesy Alaina B. (Flickr)

Cheeseburgers. Watermelon. Grilled corn-on-the-cob. As the promise of warmer weather inches increasingly closer, I’m already dreaming of my favorite summer foods. (I mean, really, aren’t you?? Bet you are now…)

The world’s population is reaching 9 BILLION people, and we all have to eat! (I know, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”) In the United States, almost everyone eats incredibly well by world standards. Globally, many families are lucky to share a bowl of rice for dinner. Meanwhile, crop yields aren’t keep up with increasing demand, so world food prices are rising everyday. The developing world already experiences a food shortage, but even in the developed West, we are not completely insulated against the effects of an escalating population on global food supply. Science confirms what our guts and pocket books are already telling us – we can’t keep biggering our population without seriously thinking about how we grow and eat our food.

So what are we going to do?? Don’t despair. Thankfully, great minds are thinking about the global food crisis and considering how to ensure food security throughout the world. Many of these ideas are published in Science magazine’s recent food security issue. Scientists play an important role in boosting crop yields by researching crops and farming methods that: 1) use little water, 2) don’t deplete the soil of nutrients, and 3) increase how much food is grown per seed. Engineers and technicians are also aiding the process: plant breeders are now using robots to streamline breeding programs, which allows researchers to introduce cool new traits that allow crops to fight fungi, weeds, and viruses that threaten to wipe out entire crops (in honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2010, remember the Irish Potato Famine?).

Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad!  Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.
Fertilizer: Good or Bad?: Turns out the answer is neither all good or all bad! Plants need some nutrients, but humans often overdose crops, causing soil quality (and agriculture production) to degrade.Courtesy FreeFoto.com

Caution! Myth-busting ahead: Fertilizer is the often-suggested solution to the global food crisis, but scientists say we only need to look as far as China to see why that’s not a solution, but rather part of the problem. China consumes 36% of the world’s manmade fertilizer, making it the world’s largest user. Nitrogen is a major component of fertilizer. Nitrogen is what scientists call a “limiting nutrient” meaning “the nutrient is rare, but plants need a minimum amount to live.” Research in China has shown that sometimes there is too much of a good thing; too much fertilizer actually causes healthy soil to get sick from a nitrogen overdose.

Ensuring the world’s food security poses cultural, economic, and psychological challenges as well as scientific ones. Solutions discussed in Science’s special issue include promoting traditional mixed crop-livestock systems, local development of relevant technologies, and eating less meat. One alternative suggested that’s going to (literally) be hard to swallow: substituting African caterpillars instead of steak and other meaty favorites. (I think that’s going to be a tough sell…)

You don’t have to go too far to find people tackling the problem of food security. Right here in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscape Initiative (GLI) program has a focus on agriculture and food systems. By studying how people use land for farming and other practices, GLI is seeking to understand how we might make better use of land to create a brighter future for humankind and the environment. Recently they made a sweet YouTube video to pose the BIG Question: Feast or Famine? I highly recommend you check it out:

Dec
14
2008

Note: original title using the term fertilizer was corrected to read atrazine
Leopard frog
Leopard frogCourtesy Heather Dietz

What is happening to our frogs?

A recent study showed that atrazine in pond water could lead to a higher population of snails, which harbor parasites that also infect frogs. For the study, Lucinda Johnson and her colleagues at UMD collected leopard frogs from 18 wetlands near St. Cloud, Minnesota. The researchers found a positive correlation between the amount of atrazine in a wetland and the number of parasites in that wetland's frogs. The parasite in question is a tiny worm called a trematode. They can have a negative effect on frog populations.

How atrazine effects frogs

More fertilizer = more pond scum (periphyton)
More periphyton (snail food) = more snails
More snails = more snail parasites (trematodes)
More trematodes = more trematode larva attacking tadpoles
Larva infested tadpoles and frogs have lower survival rates when atrazine is present

The trematode worm that infects the frogs gets passed to frog-eating birds like herons and egrets. Inside the birds, the worms develop to adulthood. The adults produce eggs that are released into water with the birds' feces. The eggs hatch, develop into larvae, and burrow into snails. After further development, they burrow their way out again and swim in search of tadpoles. They infect them, the tadpoles turn into frogs, and the cycle continues.

Learn more about atrazine and frogs

Source articleUMNews: The tadpoles tale .
Article in Nature: Agrochemicals increase trematode infections in a declining amphibian species

Remember those freaky frogs first discovered by Minnesota schoolchildren in 1995? (Science Buzz did an exhibit about them, too, in early spring of 2005.) Pieter Johnson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder (formerly of University of Wisconsin, Madison), has published his newest research: he says parasites called trematodes cause the missing and extra legs, and that runoff from farms and lawns fuels algae growth, which allows for larger snail populations, which means more trematodes and more deformed frogs....

Jul
18
2007

The deadly cycle: Farming > River > Dead Zone > SHARKS!
The deadly cycle: Farming > River > Dead Zone > SHARKS!
Did you know that the food we grow up here in the Midwest might cause shark attacks down in the Gulf of Mexico? Okay, I might be getting a little sensational but here is my train of thought.

  • We do a ton of farming up here in the central states. This requires lots of fertilizer which in many cases eventually runs into the Mississippi River.
  • The nutrients in this fertilizer flow down to the Gulf of Mexico where they cause a huge area of low oxygen in the water causing fish who can't swim long distances to die.
  • Other fish that can migrate, like sharks, get the heck outta dodge and end up swimming around in larger numbers in beach areas where people swim.

It gets worse. Just today, the BBC is reporting that scientists think that this year's dead zone could grow to 8,500 sq miles, the biggest ever!

I wonder what the "tipping point" is for this issue? I'm not seriously too worried about the shark attacks. But the environmental impacts of the dead zone are huge. How bad will this have to get before people start talking about the issue of fertilizer run-off around the water cooler? Then again, maybe we can get some positive public action during the upcoming shark week, but I am guessing agricultural practices won't exactly be their focus...alas.

Related link

Dead Zone - Great resource on the science behind the Dead Zone from none other than...us, the Science Museum of Minnesota.