Science Study Shows Agricultural Fertilizer Choking U.S. Oceans

A peer-reviewed paper published on April 12th in Science demonstrates the extent

of environmental harm from agriculture as practiced over the past few

decades. Use of nitrogen fertilizer has risen dramatically, and half of all the

fertilizer that has ever been used on Earth has been applied in the last 15

years, leading to massive pollution of coastal waters. Agricultural nitrogen

fertilizers that run off into coastal areas squeeze oxygen from the water,

leaving behind “dead zones” devoid of most life forms.

Polluted agricultural runoff from farms in the upper Midwest contributes to a

dead zone the size of New Jersey located in the Gulf of Mexico off the

Mississippi River. Coastal waters and two-thirds of the nation’s rivers and

bays are degraded from nutrient pollution, much of it coming from farms.

“Coastal waters are being decimated by pollution from nitrogen fertilizer,” said

Environmental Defense senior scientist Bob Howarth, one of the authors of

the Science paper. “Fisheries, coastal ecosystems and the recreational and

commercial industries that depend upon them are being hit hard by fertilizer

overuse. If trends of the past 35 years continue, nitrogen fertilizer use will

more than double globally by 2050.”

A letter signed by 128 of the nation’s leading environmental scientists to

Congressional leaders will be released today in coordination with publication

of the Science paper. The letter calls for Congress to provide authorization

funding for a plan to reduce nitrogen flux in the Mississippi basin by 30% in

15 years. All of the governors of the states in the upper Mississippi basin have

signed the Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Action Plan, but

federal assistance is necessary for the plan to succeed. The letter and a list of

its signatories can be found at

“Congress must step forward and make the investments needed to foster an

environmentally sustainable green revolution, which will make U.S. coastal

and agricultural areas stronger, safer and more productive,” said Howarth.

“They should support the Midwestern governors and provide funding for the

Task Force nitrogen reduction plan. Congress should also revise the Farm Bill

and help farmers make the transition to more environmentally benign

agriculture practices. Planting winter cover crops and using somewhat less

fertilizer, combined with full Congressional funding of wetlands restoration and

preservation, are important and practical steps toward restoring the economic

and environmental health of America’s coastal waters. Solutions are easily

available that help preserve the oceans without harming crop production.”

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