Fertilisers and pollution – surprising findings

Legumes to the rescue for farmers?
May 24, 2016
Legislative update 30 May 2016
May 30, 2016

Fertilisers and pollution – surprising findings

A research team from Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have found that across much of the United States, Europe, Russia and China, farm emissions exceed fine-particulate air pollution compared to all other human emission sources. The farm emissions (such as from fertilisers and animal waste) interact with emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial processes to form particulate matter that causes lung cancer and other health issues. This research is important as it is the first time that a study has considered the issue across such a large area showing the dangers to human health. It is also important as the researchers found that because the farm emissions require combustion emissions to form the dangerous solid particles, the projected decrease of combustion emissions in the coming decades will mean that the resulting particulate matter will decline, this is good news for a world where fertiliser use is expected to increase to provide food for a growing world population. This also assumes that combustion emissions will decrease which depending on which day of the week it is may or may not happen.

We have written previously about the ecosystem-specific vulnerabilities to atmospheric nitrogen deposition on the continental scale, now in another study scientists from Colorado State University have considered the environmental impact of ammonia emissions (mainly from fertilisers and animal waste) on the nitrogen cycle in study areas around the United States and have found they have increased over the decades. The research team found that a reason for this was because the focus has been on curbing nitrogen oxide emissions and not as much attention has been given to ammonia emissions (they are not a regulated pollutant in the United States, as an example), it has now become the dominant source of nitrogen deposition. In particular, ammonia in wet deposition (rain, snow or fog) has grown and means that the nitrogen cycle is still negatively impacted even though nitrogen oxide emissions have been reduced, resulting environmental impacts including decreased biodiversity, increased soil acidification and lake eutrophication. This is different to the research above as that relates to particulate ammonia rather than gaseous ammonia but it adds another dimension to the research carried out at Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space as it shows that the assumed increase in fertiliser use for food production will come with increased wet deposition of ammonia. The resulting environmental damage will ironically have an impact on the soils that will be required for food and fibre production.

In Australia, the environmental protection authorities in each state are responsible for emissions standards, for NSW this is the Environment Protection Authority. Interestingly, only the concentration of ammonium nitrate in production is regulated in NSW and there does not appear to be any restrictions for the amount that can be produced. This can be juxtaposed to nitrogen oxide which has regulations for amounts that be emitted. At the national level, there is the National Pollution Inventory that provides information on substance emissions which requires a ‘facility’ to report to the Inventory for a number of emissions including ammonia. However, if a facility is solely engaged in agricultural production then they are not required to report their emissions.

As the research above shows, farm emissions (particularly ammonia) are a serious health and environmental issue due to the amount that is being produced globally, this means there is an opportunity for reform. Examples include regulating ammonia emissions as has occurred with nitrogen oxide emissions and, as mentioned in our recent article, encouraging farming practices that require less fertiliser through incorporation of no till methods and utilisation of different cover crops which have the benefit of improving soil quality and output.


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