All over the world, farmers, agricultural scientists, governments, and corporations are trying to figure out how to provide enough food to feed a growing global population. Even though the world currently produces more than enough calories to meet the needs of every person alive, nearly a billion people still suffer from hunger.
Global hunger is a social, economic, cultural, and scientific problem. As the planet warms and industrial agriculture’s factory-derived chemical inputs continue to pollute vital natural areas, food producers and consumers are working to devise alternative solutions.
Nitrogen is the most common atmospheric element and is essential for plant and animal life. In fact, it is largely responsible for the high agricultural yields that many places, including the United States, enjoy today. Corn, wheat, and rice, in their modern forms, all consume large quantities of nitrogen – more than nature alone can provide.
Thus, modern industrial agriculture has co-evolved with industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer. Farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer to their fields in order to replenish the nitrogen that has been taken up by crops. The fertilizer is created in factories, which combine atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to create a reactive compound that helps plants grow and thrive. An estimated one hundred million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are applied to fields worldwide each year.
Even though this agricultural system now produces enough food to feed the world, it is not sustainable for numerous reasons. One reason is that the nitrogen fertilizer runs off into lakes, rivers, and groundwater, causing the destruction of fragile water ecosystems like wetlands, and contributing to dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Global agriculture is, unfortunately, undermining the planet’s supply of clean water.
The overload of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, known as eutrophication, causes aquatic plankton and algae to grow at extremely high rates. This causes a bloom, or an area of a body of water that is completely overgrown with aquatic plants. The bloom, in turn, leads to hypoxia, the reduction of oxygen in the water. Hypoxia reduces some species while increasing others, decreases overall biodiversity, and causes imbalances that resonate throughout the ecosystem.
Nitrogen fertilizer use varies widely throughout the world. In some places, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer yields plenty of food, but serious environmental consequences. In other places, a lack of fertilizer means that farmers cannot grow enough to sustain themselves or their communities. And across the globe, farmers and institutions are working to find a balance between the two, and hopefully a solution to the conundrum of how to feed the world without destroying it.