Changing Planet

Why Transparency With Fertilizer Management Tools Will Benefit Water Quality

By Suzy Friedman, director of sustainable agriculture at Environmental Defense Fund

Suzy Friedman, Environmental Defense Fund
Suzy Friedman, Environmental Defense Fund

By 2050, we will have 2 billion more people on Earth. They will all need to eat. They will all need water. Feeding the planet sustainably is a huge challenge, since food production can have negative environmental impacts such as decreased water quality and air pollution. There is also unprecedented pressure on farmers to produce more while avoiding crises like toxic algal blooms shutting down Toledo, Ohio’s water supply and lawsuits over nitrate levels in drinking water in Des Moines, Iowa.

The good news is that we can have both clean water and a highly productive agricultural system across the U.S. – including in places like the Western Lake Erie Basin, Mississippi River Basin, and Chesapeake Bay. One way we can achieve this vision is through using fertilizer as efficiently as possible.

Fertilizer is one of the most important inputs in agriculture – it allows us to produce as much food as we do. But up to 50 percent of fertilizer applied is not absorbed by crops, leading to runoff of nutrients that causes water pollution and transforms into air pollution in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Farmers also spend about half of their input costs on fertilizer.

Using fertilizer more precisely and as efficiently as possible is a win for farmers and a win for water quality. Precision agriculture tools can help farmers realize this win-win, but little data is publicly available on how these tools actually work in the field.

Far too often, farmers lack the information they need to make optimal decisions about how to manage their inputs – especially fertilizer – to be both highly productive and environmentally sustainable. That means farmers are making decisions about whether or not to buy or use fertilizer management tools without any assurance that the tool will work as advertised, or without any information on how a tool will affect their yield. This guessing game is not a recipe for sustainability or success.

That’s why EDF developed NutrientStar, an independent, science-based review program that assesses the performance of commercially available fertilizer management tools. NutrientStar will serve as a Consumer Reports for such tools, which are made by companies like Dow AgroSciences, Koch Agronomic Services, Dupont-Pioneer, Climate Corporation, Agrium, and others.

At the heart of NutrientStar is an expert, unbiased, independent science review panel that established the criteria for review and conducts the actual assessments to shed light on how these tools perform in the field, in different regions, and on different soil types.

The benefits of this independent program include:

  • Farmers will gain confidence knowing more about how the fertilizer management tools they purchase will work to reduce fertilizer losses, improve soil health and water quality, lower input costs, and maintain yields. Farmers can also showcase their stewardship to food companies and suppliers by using NutrientStar reviewed tools that show clear benefits.
  • Agricultural retailers who sell products to growers will earn a competitive advantage by offering field-tested and geographically relevant products to their farmer customers.
  • Food companies can improve transparency with customers, by asking stakeholders in their supply chain to use NutrientStar reviewed products to make food production more sustainable.
  • Tool manufacturers ensure they are offering the most competitive, farm-tested products to growers, thereby earning customer loyalty.

NutrientStar Logo.1pngNutrientStar gets us one step closer to making sustainable food production the norm and protecting water quality– but we have a long way to go. We’ll need to increase data collection and analysis across the agricultural supply chain to better understand environmental impacts and to inform the right solutions to ensure we can sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.

  • Waterlover

    Using fertilizers more precisely and efficiently is an excellent idea, thank you for your initiative on this. Since one of the key goals here is to improve water quality, may I humbly suggest that EDF urgently needs to focus on additional aspects of agriculture that are causing widespread pollution and health issues, such as rampant pesticide and herbicide use?

    There are literally hundreds of unregulated contaminants (including many from agricultural practices) that are present in varying levels all over the country, both in municipal tap water and private well waters. (see NYTimes article on Feb 9 titled “Unsafe lead levels in tap water not limited to Flint”). There is practically NO testing done for them, although many of the unregulated contaminants are implicated in cancer and endocrine disorders.

    This is forcing many people to use reverse-osmosis filters or distillation units for purifying their drinking and cooking water, since these devices can remove or minimize practically all contaminants. This is a partial solution at best, since any method of broadly removing contaminants also removes healthy mineral electrolytes from the water that have many beneficial health effects. It is possible to add healthy minerals back into the water by using a product such as emdrops (electrolyte mineral drops), but again it is really important to take steps to reduce source contamination in the first place.

    Note that even if everyone starts purifying & mineralizing their drinking and cooking water, we would still be watering our farms with water containing hundreds of toxic chemicals, and no one knows the long term effects of those on the crops we grow and eat.

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