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Essay: Effects of chemical fertilizers

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  • Subject area(s): Environmental studies essays
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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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  • Words: 1,493 (approx)
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In order for plants to grow and thrive, they need certain different chemical elements. The most important ones are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen which are available from air and water and therefore there is plenty of these elements easily available to plants. Plants also need three main macronutrients in large quantities which they cannot produce themselves and are: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (also known as potash). These elements are important because they are the necessary building blocks and without them a plant simply would not be able to grow because it cannot make the pieces that it needs on its own. If any of the macronutrients are missing or difficult to obtain from the soil, this will limit the plant’s ability to grow.

Due to this issue, many people choose to supply the elements that the plants need through fertilizers. There are both organic and synthetic fertilizers that can be added to soil or land in order to increase its fertility. Organic fertilizers are made from natural living materials such as peat moss, bone, seaweed, composted plant materials and animal manure. They are made from ingredients that are naturally high in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, or all of the elements. Synthetic fertilizers need to be manufactured chemically or produced from rocks and minerals.

Most farmers and gardeners choose to use a combination of both chemical and natural fertilizers. They have access to cow manure and horse manure which is a great fertilizer as long as it is mixed with compost and allowed to age. While the manure breaks down it is able to add nutrients that the plants need as well as enrich the soil in order to help it retain moisture and reduce runoff. However, organic fertilizers don’t break down quickly. It can take months to release nutrients and it takes longer, but they tend to improve soil structure and provide benefits that last for multiple growing seasons. On the other hand, synthetic fertilizers can dissolve in water and can be used by plants immediately, and although they can help plants get off to a quick start, they do not usually do much to improve overall soil health in the long run.

However, many despite the fact that many people use fertilizers, few consider the drawbacks of these fertilizers. This is because most people are not aware of the fact that fertilizer can harm plants and other living things in the environment as well as the ecosystem in general. Fertilizers can hurt the plants themselves if they provide the elements in the wrong ratios. While fertilizers may be beneficial to plants, they are not always as healthy for the rest of the environment. In order to be as environmentally conscious as possible, we need to ask ourselves: what are the effects of synthetic inorganic fertilizers on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems?

Phosphorus can run off and degrade waterways

There are organic fertilizer such as cow manure or homemade compost which are excellent all-purpose organic fertilizers.

How does synthetic fertilizer differ from organic fertilizer, what are the negative effects of synthetic fertilizer, what do we need to change/ how can we educate people

Figures: Include figures and additional summarizing information that describes how the issue is portrayed in popular press (e.g., show headlines, Youtube clips, etc.)

Identify or produce science that supports/refutes the issue/topic/gap in knowledge: What is the science behind the issue? What science is missing in how the issue is portrayed? What science needs to be done to better support/refute the issue?

Most nitrogen fertilizers are obtained from synthetic ammonia (NH3) and it is used either in a water solution or as a gas. It is sometimes also converted into salts like ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and ammonium phosphate.

Phosphorus fertilizers derive calcium phosphate from rocks or bones or treating calcium phosphate with sulfuric and phosphoric acid.

Potassium fertilizers are mined from potash deposits

Many fertilizers have been known to cause a loss of oxygen in aquatic systems because of the runoff. High amounts of nitrogen end up in the bodies of water, leading to an excess of algae which can have negative effects on the wildlife found in the water. Furthermore, some fertilizers include toxic heavy metals that can be hazardous if the runoff ends up in the water because it could contaminate the environment or harm the animals found in it.

The biggest issue is groundwater contamination because since nitrogen fertilizers break down into nitrates and travel easily through the soil, they can remain in the water for many years. This addition of excess nitrogen which accumulates throughout the years can have a negative effect. Some fertilizers produce ammonia emanation and contributes to acid rain, groundwater contamination and ozone depletion because it releases nitrous oxide through the denitrification process.

Nitrogen groundwater contamination also leads to what is known as marine “dead zones”. Due to the fact that there is an increase in plant life thanks to the nitrates, there is a decrease in oxygen which in turn starves out fish and crustaceans in the environment. This does not only affect the aquatic ecosystem and food chain, but also the local societies that depend on food from these areas.

Furthermore, the use of synthetic nitrogen creates a negative effect because it leads to a decline in soil’s ability to store organic nitrogen. This results in the organic matter leaching away, contaminating water in the form of nitrates, and entering the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O) which is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. The loss of organic matter leads to injured soil, which is then more prone to compaction. This makes the soil more vulnerable to being affected by runoff and erosion, which limits the growth of stabilizing plant roots.

Fertilizer also destroys soil biodiversity because it diminishes the role of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and increases the role of everything that feeds on nitrogen. By increasing these feeders, it speeds up the decomposition of organic matter which results in a change in the soil’s physical structure. In this way, there is less pore space and the soil becomes less efficient at storing water and air. This means that more irrigations is now needed, and water drains away nutrients. Also, less oxygen means that the growth of soil microbiology is slowed down.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality talked about the long term use of synthetic fertilizers and their negative impact on soil structure. Researchers from Kansas State University observed inorganic fertilizer’s effects on soil properties for the past 50 years. They found that although adding nitrogen and phosphorus increases soil organic carbon, the benefits are outweighed by the costs, such as decreased soil macro aggregates. This leads to a soil that is less resistant to erosion and water is not able to move well through the soil. They believed that the decreased soil aggregates could be due to the ammonium ions that are found in the synthetic fertilizer. These ions cause the soil particles to separate.

Get Real:  Based on scientific data, how do you think this issue should be portrayed to the public? Do you think current coverage is accurate? Do you think more/less media attention should be paid to the problem?

There is a lot of information available on the topic, and I quickly received many good sources of information for my research. However, I believe that although the research, the studies, and the proof is out there, people are uneducated about the topic. I think this is because many people don’t stop and wonder about the negative effects that fertilizer could have because of the common misconception that it only does good for the environment. Many people only think that fertilizer will help their plants and crops grow and that it is necessary so they do not question it and simply use it. Another problem might be that despite the fact that people might now about the detriments, they continue to use it because they want their lawns and gardens to look beautiful or they want to continue successfully growing their crops.

I also believe that the effects of chemical fertilizers are not widely spoken about because they are largely untested. Although there is plenty of information about the risk of groundwater contamination and the environmental issues that fertilizers entail, there is still research missing on how it affects human health. Therefore, instead of trying to use organic fertilizers, people continue using synthetic.

We should be aware that fertilizers not only affect the bodies of water or land or the animals that live there, but humans as well as the future of our entire world because it becomes a ripple effect.

However, knowing and understanding the effects of chemical fertilizers doesn’t do much help if we do not do anything about it. We should support organic and sustainable agriculture and become more informed about what we can do or change to help our environment.

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