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The High Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction

Health & Wellness  (tags: abuse, americans, children, crime, farming, Food, fertilizer, orgnaic crops )

- 1878 days ago -
Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay for converting from "conventional" to organic farming.

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Kit B (276)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 8:33 am
Aerial photos above the fertilizer plant in West, Texas in the aftermath of an explosion that killed 14 people, more than 200 injured, and many homeless. (Photo: Getty Images)

The High Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction

Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay for converting from "conventional" to organic farming.

My heart aches for the people of West, Texas, the tiny town where a fertilizer plant recently blew up. Many of the folks who perished in the blast were heroic volunteer firefighters who ran into danger instead of away from it.

With 14 dead and 200 injured, and a nearby nursing home, school, and apartment complex either badly damaged or destroyed, West’s brave citizens have hard work ahead.

As a nation, we must prevent a disaster like this from happening again. For starters, we can make fertilizer plants safer and locate them away from schools and nursing homes from now on.

This tragedy is even more painful because the factory was making a product — nitrogen fertilizer — that perhaps should not be used at all.

Here’s a big question we should all be asking: Why do Americans use so much nitrogen fertilizer in the first place?

Scientists discovered two centuries ago that plants need nitrogen, a building block of protein, to grow.

Whether you fertilize your soil with manure or with the fertilizer manufactured in the plant that just blew up, you’re adding nitrogen to your soil. Too much nitrogen kills your plants. But without nitrogen, plants can’t grow.

That seems simple. But there’s more to it. Another element, carbon, is inextricably linked to nitrogen. Microbes in the soil need both carbon and nitrogen to survive, and they need them in the right ratios. Add too much nitrogen, and the microbes end up depleting the carbon in the soil as a result.

Of course, plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to sugars via photosynthesis. So why does it matter if there’s no carbon left in the soil?

Well, the carbon located in the soil allows the ground to retain air and water. Plants need that carbon because they need air and water. Without carbon, the soil becomes compressed and hard. Water can’t penetrate it easily, and instead of seeping deep into the ground, it evaporates. This leaves farmland — and crops — more vulnerable to both drought and floods.

Strangely enough, even though nitrogen-based fertilizer allows plants to grow lush and green, it also weakens their defense mechanisms. This makes farmland, lawns, and gardens more attractive to pests.

Plants evolved in the absence of modern fertilizer and pesticides. Believe it or not, they are far more in control than we imagine them to be. I see them as conductors of a vast, microscopic orchestra.

The roots of every plant emit chemicals called exudates that draw microbes to the zone immediately around the roots. The microbes — bacteria and fungi — stay there, feeding off the exudates. In exchange, the microbes provide the plant with nutrients, including nitrogen.

The microbes feed the plant, prey on or compete with harmful organisms, and improve the structure of the soil. These microbes are the key to every great natural landscape in the world — and to successful organic farming.

We can maximize crop productivity by putting these microbes to work for us. Instead, “conventional” farmers routinely kill them by using nitrogen fertilizer that depletes their soil.

Critics of nitrogen fertilizer often compare it to a drug. The first hit feels really good, and your crops grow big and beautiful. But as the microbes in your soil die and your carbon is depleted, you need more and more fertilizer just to get the same yields.

Meanwhile, fertilizer runs off, polluting nearby waterways. And because fertilizer is made with natural gas — often obtained these days via the extreme drilling process known as “fracking” — it devastates the environment when it’s manufactured as well as when it’s used.

Just like junkies suffer painful withdrawal when they stop taking drugs, a farm addicted to nitrogen fertilizer will experience a drop in yields for a few years once they stop using it. But after five “drug”-free years, a properly managed organic farm can meet or exceed the yields it would have achieved using chemicals.

Compared to the lifetime of grieving ahead for the people of West, Texas, a few years of reduced crop yields is a small price to pay.

Let’s end our national addiction to fertilizer.

By: Jill Richardson | Common Dreams |

Published on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 by Other Words

JL A (281)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 9:02 am
How many deaths does it take before government and businesses agree that too many people have died?

Theodore Shayne (56)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 10:30 am
If you want a good example of the affect of fertilizers and pesticides and hormones hard at work damaging the environment; take a good look at the aerial views over the Carolinas. It is a gruesome picture of heavy brown sludge from the factory farms that gets carried into the ocean.
Organic farming is the only way to go if we want to save our planet. We should be looking at these local farmers in India with the big yields using a different organic method.

Arielle S (313)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 10:44 am
And unfortunately, there are many who seem to think "if a little is good, a lot will be better". Time to kick the habit.

Kit B (276)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 1:51 pm

I hope that at some point, what happened in West, TX and why it happened will finally gain the attention of the media. To most it is not a blip on the radar. It was in fact much worse than Boston but, not as bad as China. China suffered an earthquake and we could begin to dissect how humans have so impinged on the earth that even earthquakes may be a result. What we do know is that what happened in West, Tx is a man-made disaster, just as terrifying and dangerous as any terror attack. People died directly because of the greed that has come from doing business and having no accountability for the resulting actions.

We seem to forget that even those who wear expensive suits and sit around expensive furniture when making these decisions are no different that anyone else who causes lose of life.

Lois Jordan (63)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 2:07 pm
Thanks for this wonderful info, Kit, I didn't know much of what was explained before now about fertilizer. I believe the worst factor is that there had been no OSHA inspection since 1985. Although there are 2200 OSHA inspectors for the entire U.S., it would take 129 yrs. to do all the necessary inspections with this number, so obviously, more are needed. West Fertilizer was storing 1350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger gov't inspection, and never told the Dept. of Homeland Security it was well over the limit as it's required to do. This self-regulation that the GOP constantly pushes for is NOT working.

Birgit W (160)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 3:13 pm
Organic farming is the only way to go.

Fred Krohn (34)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 5:01 pm
What's brown and sounds like a bell? Fertiliser!

Kit B (276)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 5:33 pm

Lois, you are alone. Few know what happened here or why it happened. This story has been lost in the headlines about a better more gossip rich story in Boston. Why? Because one can look at Boston and see two words, Muslim and terror. Facts were and are made up almost the hour, with little regard to human cost. King Perry in Texas is still very proud of squelching nearly all business regulations in favor of attracting to Texas, even more business. That these businesses can and do operate against the best advice for protection of the business, employees and the neighboring communities seems an irrelevant point.

A hint into the psyche of Perry, he recently made a comment that he saw nothing wrong with texting while driving.

Kit B (276)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 5:35 pm

** You are NOT alone.** Also by the hour*

DaleLovesOttawa O (198)
Sunday April 28, 2013, 9:00 pm
A fascinating and timely subject.

Mariann Rannenberg (158)
Monday April 29, 2013, 12:44 am
This was so sad. I have had a mass said for these people. What a price to pay!!

Deborah L (3)
Monday April 29, 2013, 4:10 am
At home we should all be composting our kitchen refuse into black gold for our gardens. This will reduce the use of non organic fertilizers and chemicals in home use. Small potatoes I know, but we have to start somewhere. Getting the big factory farms to change is a tall order we can change by voting with our dollars. Go Organic!

Past Member (0)
Monday April 29, 2013, 5:17 am
Interesting article.

Lindsay K (6)
Monday April 29, 2013, 6:43 am
There are many lessons that need to be learnt from this tragedy.

Lynn C (94)
Monday April 29, 2013, 8:48 am

Julie P (154)
Monday April 29, 2013, 2:42 pm
Plants in the legume family (peas, beans, clover, alfalfa), with the aid of bacteria, fixate nitrogen so it can be used by other plants. This is why the approval of GMO alfalfa, and the inevitable contamination of organic alfalfa, is such a threat to organic farming. Clover, which is cursed as a weed, actually helps your lawn and garden; Rabbits, which many people dismiss as pests, have the higest concentration of nitrogen in their droppings. Nature has it all worked out, if we would only follow her lead.

Gene J (290)
Monday April 29, 2013, 3:57 pm
"This tragedy is even more painful because the factory was making a product — nitrogen fertilizer — that perhaps should not be used at all."

Answer is NO. 17 or 18 years ago I read, listened to a tape actually, of how this came to happen. When WWII ended we were left with this huge supply of nitrogen with no idea what to do with it. Of course, enterprising scientific minds back then rarely asked long term questions, hence DDT, Thalidomide and countless other toxins. But someone happened to notice that when you dosed soil with nitrogen the plants grew bigger, the produce shinier and larger. They thought it was a great thing. They did not notice until much later that the produce was nutritionally deficient, though beautiful, it didn't taste the same, and was virtually devoid of the nutrients our bodies need. I've said before I grew up on a family farm, that adjoined my maternal grandparents. Everything we ate, we grew, we had cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and giant gardens. Nothing tastes like that which I remember as a child now. Nothing, including meat. I don't eat much meat, but the produce we have today is nothing like what it was then, sweet corn, peas, strawberries, apples - people born after 1980 have no idea how good food was at one time in this country. Now we have vast portions of the nations breadbasket that is essentially "dead", nothing will grow there, without artificial fertilizers. While that stuff we put on the fields was stinky, it was at least natural, and it refueled the soil. Artificial fertilizers don't do that. We must mend our wicked ways and be rid of artificial fertilizers, reintroduce natural fertilizers and let nature make our soil viable for crops again. It is the only solution in which we live healthy long lives. That tape I listened to back then said my grandparents generation, born in the early 1900's was the last one that was going to make it to their 80's and 90's. As I look at the obituary columns I see that true. We have so many people dying so young these days of diseases that did not used to take us until our 70's or later, heart attacks in the 30's for men and 40's for women. A host of auto immune diseases that are racing through our children like wildfire, diseases now that barely, if at all, existed then. Artificial fertilizers, pesticides and gmo's are going to get us all, if we don't change the way we think and act, and return to farming as a natural occurrence without the aid of pesticides that give our children cancer, autism and so many more horrible diseases, all the while shortening our lifes spans as well. It isn't too late to fix this but we need people saying what needs be fixed first. Not fools trying to find the next great artificial way to grow real food, because that way does not exist and they are on a fools errand. In this instance, what we did, was far better than what we do.

Kit B (276)
Monday April 29, 2013, 4:36 pm

Thank you Gene. That is so true, now we choose between bland and boring. Oh the food is nice looking and has shiny brighter colors, it just lacks one thing nutrition.

Kirsten Taufer (43)
Monday April 29, 2013, 4:39 pm
Really cool article! Thank you!

Sandra ;atterson (59)
Monday April 29, 2013, 5:07 pm
sadly noted

reft h (66)
Monday April 29, 2013, 11:37 pm
Thanks for the article, it is important more people learn about these problems. Unfortunately if you want these stories to get noticed you have to put Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga in the middle of the field, then it will get shown on Entertainment Tonight and people will see it. Otherwise I am afraid it remains a small blip in the news.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday April 30, 2013, 9:25 am

LucyKaleido S (82)
Monday September 9, 2013, 5:36 am
Hi, KIt! Got an e-mail today from Rick Hind, Greenpeace Legislative Director, to promote a petition for action to protect citizens against the very kind of catastrophe you posted on here. This is what he says:

"A small town in Texas will never be the same after fifteen people lost their lives when a fertilizer plant exploded back in April.

The explosion was so big it registered as a 2.1 MAGNITUDE EARTHQUAKE and destroyed a 37-block area of West, Texas. The most tragic part of it all is that the explosion along with the death and destruction that followed didn’t have to happen.

There are safe, affordable alternatives to the dangerous chemicals like the ones used in the Texas fertilizer plant available right now. But instead of making the switch, the chemical industry has chosen to spend its money lobbying Congress so that it can keep putting millions needlessly at risk. And up until now, that strategy was working.

Things are changing though. President Obama recently issued a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop plans for new safety measure at chemical plants by November. What happens next is up to us. It’s your voice versus the chemical industry.

Send a message to President Obama and the EPA right now and urge them to adopt safety standards that prevent chemical disasters.
President Obama has been outspoken on this issue in the past. In fact, back when he was a Senator from Illinois he had this to say,: "We cannot allow chemical industry lobbyists to dictate the terms of this debate. We cannot allow our security to be hijacked by corporate interests."

Take action and tell President Obama and the EPA that now’s the time to put those words into action and prevent another disaster like the one in West, Texas.

A decade ago the EPA proposed using the Clean Air Act to enforce commons sense rules for chemical plants like the one in West, Texas. For a decade Congress and two Presidents have been dragging their feet.

Legislation that would address this problem has completely stalled in Congress and is going nowhere thanks to the deep pockets of the chemical lobby. It's up to the President to do the right thing and he needs our support to make it happen.

If the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and the West, Texas explosion have taught us anything in the last couple of years, it's that disasters happen. There's no sense for millions of Americans to remain needlessly at risk from dangerous chemicals when safer alternatives exist.

Tell President Obama you support him using his authority to do what Congress won't, and put the safety and health of American citizens ahead of corporate interests."

There was an earlier Greenpeace petition on this same issue, linked to from The Nation magazine, "Help Prevent a Bhopal in the US" /Nation Action on August 14, 2012: "In recent months, fifty-nine organizations filed an official petition with the EPA while more than 60,000 people have signed a petition calling for safer chemical plants. Add your name to the cause." - Urge President Obama to use his authority to prevent chemical disasters
It is still active, as I was able to sign that one, too.

At that time (Aug 2012), a serious fire at the the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California had "force(d) local residents to hide in their homes with the doors and windows sealed, and sent hundreds seeking medical care. If the explosion had ruptured one of the tanks of anhydrous ammonia on site, 160,000 residents living up to five miles from the plant may have found themselves in a blanket of poison gas."

As a result, Greenpeace campaigner John Deans wrote an article in The Nation Will the EPA Force Chemical Plants to Go Safe?, pointing out that "one in three people in this country live in the danger zones around the highest risk plants," and Greenpeace inventoried the 10 most dangerous plants in the US.

August 2012 -> April 2013 -> Sept 2013: No effective action for safety regulations has been taken yet!
How many danger alerts do we need?
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