Putting Farmland On A Sensible Fertilizer Diet

Putting Farmland On A Sensible Fertilizer Diet

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a document yesterday that got no attention on the nightly news, or almost anywhere, really. Its title, I'm sure you'll agree, is a snooze: National Nutrient Management Standard.

Yet this document represents the agency's best attempt to solve one of the country's — and the world's — really huge environmental problems: The nitrogen and phosphorus that pollute waterways.

There's a simple reason why this problem is so big, and so hard to solve. Farmers have to feed their fields, before those fields can feed us. Without fertilizer, harvests would dwindle. But lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters lie downstream from highly fertilized farmland, and now they are choking to death on too much nutrition.

Those nutrients typically come from commercial fertilizer, but they don't have to. Organic growers need to feed their fields, too. Farmers can also use animal manure (which is really recycled fertilizer from the fields that fed those animals) and legumes — crops like alfalfa or chickpeas, which add nitrogen it to the soil.