Water Edit

Main article: Eutrophication

Agricultural run-off is a major contributor to the eutrophication of fresh water bodies. For example, in the US, about half of all the lakes are eutrophic. The main contributor to eutrophication is phosphate, which is normally a limiting nutrient; high concentrations promote the growth of cyanobacteria and algae, the demise of which consumes oxygen.[1] Cyanobacteria blooms ('algal blooms') can also produce harmful toxins that can accumulate in the food chain, and can be harmful to humans.[2][3]

The nitrogen-rich compounds found in fertilizer runoff are the primary cause of serious oxygen depletion in many parts of oceans, especially in coastal zones, lakes and rivers. The resulting lack of dissolved oxygen greatly reduces the ability of these areas to sustain oceanic fauna.[4] The number of oceanic dead zones near inhabited coastlines are increasing.[5] As of 2006, the application of nitrogen fertilizer is being increasingly controlled in northwestern Europe[6] and the United States.[7][8] If eutrophication can be reversed, it may take decadesScript error before the accumulated nitrates in groundwater can be broken down by natural processes.

Nitrate pollution Edit

Only a fraction of the N-based fertilizers is converted to produce and other plant matter. The remainder accumulates in the soil or lost as run-off.[1] High application rates of nitrogen-containing fertilizers combined with the high water-solubility of nitrate leads to increased runoff into surface water as well as leaching into groundwater, thereby causing groundwater pollution.[2][3][4] The excessive use of N-containing fertilizers (be they synthetic or natural) is particularly damaging, as much of the nitrogen that is not taken up by plants is transformed into nitrate which is easily leached.[5]

Nitrate levels above 10 mg/L (10 ppm) in groundwater can cause 'blue baby syndrome' (acquired methemoglobinemia).[6] The nutrients, especially nitrates, in fertilizers can cause problems for natural habitats and for human health if they are washed off soil into watercourses or leached through soil into groundwater.Script error



Nitrogen-containing fertilizers can cause soil acidification when added.[1][2] This may lead to decreases in nutrient availability which may be offset by liming.

Accumulation of toxic elements Edit


The concentration of cadmium in phosphorus-containing fertilizers varies considerably and can be problematic.[3] For example, mono-ammonium phosphate fertilizer may have a cadmium content of as low as 0.14 mg/kg or as high as 50.9 mg/kg.[4] This is because the phosphate rock used in their manufacture can contain as much as 188 mg/kg Cd[5] (examples are deposits on Nauru[6] and the Christmas islands[7]). Continuous use of high-cadmium fertilizer can contaminate soil (as shown in New Zealand)[8] and plants.[9] Limits to the cadmium content of phosphate fertilizers has been considered by the European Commission.[10][11][12] Producers of phosphorus-containing fertilizers now select phosphate rock based on the cadmium content.[13]


Phosphate rocks contain high levels of {{{1}}}F{{{2}}}. Consequently, the widespread use of phosphate fertilizers has increased soil fluoride concentrations.[9] It has been found that food contamination from fertilizer is of little concern as plants accumulate little fluoride from the soil; of greater concern is the possibility of fluoride toxicity to livestock that ingest contaminated soils.[14][15] Also of possible concern are the effects of fluoride on soil microorganisms.[14][15][16]

Radioactive elements Edit

The radioactive content of the fertilizers varies considerably and depends both on their concentrations in the parent mineral and on the fertilizer production process.[9][17] U-238 concentrations range can range from 7 to 100 pCi/g in phosphate rock[18] and from 1 to 67 pCi/g in phosphate fertilizers.[19][20][21] Where high annual rates of phosphorus fertilizer are used, this can result in U-238 concentrations in soils and drainage waters that are several times greater than are normally present.[20][22] However, the impact of these increases on the risk to human health from radinuclide contamination of foods is very small (less than 0.05 mSv/y).[20][23][24]

Other metals Edit

Steel industry wastes, recycled into fertilizers for their high levels of zinc (essential to plant growth), wastes can include the following toxic metals: Pb[25] As, Cd,[25] Cr, and Ni. The most common toxic elements in this type of fertilizer are Hg, Pb, and As.[26][27][28] These potentially harmful impurities can be removed; however, this significantly increases cost. Highly pure fertilizers are widely available and perhaps best known as the highly water-soluble fertilizers containing blue dyes used around households. These highly H2O-soluble fertilizers are used in the plant nursery business and are available in larger packages at significantly less cost than retail quantities. There are also some inexpensive retail granular garden fertilizers made with high purity ingredients.

Trace mineral depletion Edit

Attention has been addressed to the decreasing concentrations of elements such as Fe, Zn, Cu and Template:Magnesium in many foods over the last 50–60 years.[29][30] Intensive farming practices, including the use of synthetic fertilizers are frequently suggested as reasons for these declines and organic farming is often suggested as a solution.[30] Although improved crop yields resulting from NPK fertilizers are known to dilute the concentrations of other nutrients in plants,[29][31] much of the measured decline can be attributed to the use of progressively higher-yielding crop varieties which produce foods with lower mineral concentrations than their less productive ancestors.[29][32][33] It is, therefore, unlikely that organic farming or reduced use of fertilizers will solve the problem; foods with high nutrient density are posited to be achieved using older, lower-yielding varieties or the development of new high-yield, nutrient-dense varieties.[29][34]

Fertilizers are, in fact, more likely to solve trace mineral deficiency problems than cause them: In Western Australia deficiencies of Zn, Cu, Template:Manganese, Fe and Template:Molybdenum were identified as limiting the growth of broad-acre crops and pastures in the 1940s and 1950s.[35] Soils in Western Australia are very old, highly weathered and deficient in many of the major nutrients and trace elements.[35] Since this time these trace elements are routinely added to fertilizers used in agriculture in this state.[35] Many other soils around the world are deficient in zinc, leading to deficiency in both plants and humans, and zinc fertilizers are widely used to solve this problem.[36]

Changes in soil biology Edit

High levels of fertilizer may cause the breakdown of the symbiotic relationships between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi.[37]

Energy consumption and sustainability Edit

In the USA in 2004, 317 billion cubic feet of natural gas were consumed in the industrial production of ammonia, less than 1.5% of total U.S. annual consumption of natural gas.[38] A 2002 report suggested that the production of ammonia consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of world energy production.[39]

Ammonia is produced from natural gas and air.[40] The cost of natural gas makes up about 90% of the cost of producing ammonia.[41] The increase in price of natural gases over the past decade, along with other factors such as increasing demand, have contributed to an increase in fertilizer price.[42]

Contribution to climate change Edit

The greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are produced during the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. The effects can be combined into an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. The amount varies according to the efficiency of the process. The figure for the United Kingdom is over 2 kilogrammes of CO2 equivalent for each kilogramme of ammonium nitrate.[43] Nitrogen fertilizer can be converted by soil bacteria to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.

Atmosphere Edit


Through the increasing use of nitrogen fertilizer, which was used at a rate of about 110 million tons (of N) per year in 2012,[44][45] adding to the already existing amount of reactive nitrogen, nitrous oxide (N2O) has become the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. It has a global warming potential 296 times larger than an equal mass of carbon dioxide and it also contributes to stratospheric ozone depletion.[46] By changing processes and procedures, it is possible to mitigate some, but not all, of these effects on anthropogenic climate change.[47]

Methane emissions from crop fields (notably rice paddy fields) are increased by the application of ammonium-based fertilizers. These emissions contribute to global climate change as methane is a potent greenhouse gas.[48][49]


In Europe problems with high nitrate concentrations in run-off are being addressed by the European Union's Nitrates Directive.[50] Within Britain, farmers are encouraged to manage their land more sustainably in 'catchment-sensitive farming'.[51] In the US, high concentrations of nitrate and phosphorus in runoff and drainage water are classified as non-point source pollutants due to their diffuse origin; this pollution is regulated at state level.[52] Oregon and Washington, both in the United States, have fertilizer registration programs with on-line databases listing chemical analyses of fertilizers.[53][54]

References Edit

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  13. Wilfried Werner "Fertilizers, 6. Environmental Aspects" Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2002, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.doi:10.1002/14356007.n10_n05
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  39. IFA – Statistics – Fertilizer Indicators – Details – Raw material reserves, (2002–10)
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  45. An Earth-system perspective of the global nitrogen cycle Nicolas Gruber & James N. Galloway Nature 451, 293–296(17 January 2008) doi:10.1038/nature06592
  46. "Human alteration of the nitrogen cycle, threats, benefits and opportunities" UNESCO – SCOPE Policy briefs, April 2007
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  54. Washington and Oregon links

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