Dumping on manure, chemical fertilizer

March 1, 2010; Baltimore sun

According to a story today in the Washington Post, the waste generated by farms raising cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys is getting into the water (and air) in increasing quantities, even as environmental laws are cracking down on other pollutants. 

Farm animal manure (like the chicken manure being cleaned out of an Eastern Shore poultry house in the above photo) is responsible for roughly a quarter of the nitrogen helping to create a massive dead zone in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay, David Farenthold points out.  It’s also a factor in more than 200 other coastal dead zones around the country.  Modern industrial-scale animal farming simply generates too much manure to safely spread on crop fields – the excess washes off into nearby water ways.

But fertilizing farm fields with chemical or synthetic nitrogen (aka "artificial manure") doesn’t seem any better for the environment, according to an ongoing series in Grist, the Seattle-based online publication of green news and commentary.   The latest installment, which you can read here, reports on research finding that synthetic nitrogen winds up damaging the soil and destroying its ability to absorb climate-warming carbon dioxide.

What’s a farmer to do?  Correction, what are we all to do, since we’re the ultimate consumers of those crops the farmers raise?  Is there more that can and should be done to control fertilizer use to protect our streams, rivers and bays?  Can we cut back on fertilizer use without harming food production?  Food for thought.

(2008 Baltimore Sun file photo by Doug Kapustin)