As more research is conducted and information dispersed, environmental concern is one of the fastest trending topics today. Activists, politicians and even some businesses are putting environmental issues front and center of the public eye. As a result, new regulations are being implemented across the U.S. to help maintain and increase water quality, and agriculture is facing the heat.
In the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force called upon the 12 states along the Mississippi River to develop their own nutrient reduction strategies. The plan called for at least a 45% reduction in total nitrogen (N) and total phosphorus (P) loads and aimed to address nutrient-related water quality problems in waterways connected to the Mississippi River.
Calling for action—Gulf of Mexico hypoxia task force has called for 12 states to develop their own nutrient reduction strategies
The latest response to this plan has been the release of the updated Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy earlier this year. According to Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and others who worked for two years developing the strategy, it's a science-and technology-based approach to assess and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The strategy is designed to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost-effective manner.
The strategy was formed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Over the past few years, the strategy was created and revised as public comments were received. Overall, there were more than 1,700 comments from local landowners and citizens through written comments and public forums.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
Other states are taking similar approaches in response to the action plan. In Illinois, for instance, several organizations joined together to form a unified education and research program, Keep it for the Crop by 2025 (KIC 2025). The program seeks to improve nutrient efficiency and reduce losses of nutrients by specific amounts by 2025. Missouri, Ohio and Indiana have also released nutrient reduction strategies within the last year.
Setting the sights on pollution reduction in lakes, streams and rivers
The two types of pollution are categorized as point and nonpoint with the latter being the most common in agriculture. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is the largest source of nonpoint pollution in the world. Nonpoint generally results from land runoff, precipitation and atmospheric deposition.
In the case of fertilizers, rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground causes nutrient runoff and leaching. Instead of remaining in the soil and being taken up by the crops, the nutrients make their way to nearby waterways. The focal point is on P and N because, in excessive amounts, they can cause eutrophication and algae blooms. This often leads to hypoxia, the depletion of oxygen in water, which can cause dead zones.
The Iowa strategy calls for target load reductions for nonpoint sources of 41% of the statewide total N and 29% of the total P. In order to meet these goals, farmers will have to implement new practices including increasing fertilizer efficiency.
Improving nutrient efficiency through the use of Best Management Practices
The most common way to increase efficiency is through utilization of best management practices, or BMPs, and nutrient management programs. The goal of fertilizer BMPs are to match nutrient supply with crop requirements and to minimize nutrient losses from fields. They vary by location, and those chosen for a given farm are dependent on site-specific factors such as local soil, climatic conditions and crop management conditions.
Another option farmers are finding helpful is the use of fertilizer enhancer technology. These products are applied to different types of fertilizers and designed to increase efficiency by increasing nutrient availability for crop uptake and reducing nutrient losses.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
One company that specializes in fertilizer efficiency is SFP. Its line of products include: AVAIL Phosphorus Fertilizer Enhancer, NutriSphere-N Nitrogen Fertilizer Manager and More Than Manure—MTM Nutrient Manager. Through the use of patented technology, these products are designed to reduce nutrient losses from naturally-occurring processes. AVAIL helps protect applied phosphorus from tie-up; NutriSphere-N reduces nitrogen loss from leaching, volatilization and denitrification; and MTM reduces P lock-up and helps protect N from all three forms of loss in applied manures.
"The more phosphorus and nitrogen taken up by the crop, the less of these nutrients remain in the soil and vulnerable to off-site movement via erosion into waterways and groundwater," says Dr. Barney Gordon, professor emeritus at Kansas State University. "Increasing fertilizer efficiency has a direct correlation with reduced nutrient runoff."
Increased P uptake by the crop means less P in the soil to erode into nearby waterways, and keeping N in its more stable ammonium form longer decreases the amount of N released into the atmosphere or leached into waterways. The improved nutrient efficiency also can lead to agronomic benefits for the crops and economic benefits for farmers from increased yields.
Looking to the future—new agricultural technology will need to be used to meet higher environmental standards
The Midwest is not the only area of the country focusing on reducing nutrient losses, although it's heavily targeted due to fertilizer use on farmlands. Committees and task forces are being established nationwide in response to new regulations being set by the EPA. The Gulf of Mexico is considered the most well-known water body suffering from eutrophication, but others such as the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes are receiving increased attention.
The need for new agricultural technology has always been high, but is increasing even more so now to meet the environmental standards being set. Balancing the preservation of farmlands and the environment with the need to feed a growing world population will be a challenging, but necessary undertaking.