Nitrogen has been widely used in agriculture since the late 1800s, though in recent years, studies have shown the negative impact it can have on our environment. When nitrogen fertilizers are used in conventional farming, the water that flows from those farms enters our rivers and oceans, causing damage to our natural ecosystems.
Nitrogen is an essential factor in plant life; it is a major component of chlorophyll, which plants use along with sunlight to produce sugars from water and carbon dioxide. These sugars are the “food” that the plant needs to flourish.
Taking this into account, farmers began using nitrogen fertilizers because they could increase their crop yields.
Though nearly 80% of our atmosphere is comprised of nitrogen, plants can only absorb it once it is broken down from atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate or nitrite. This conversion can happen naturally in the soil, providing nitrate/nitrite to the plants. However, in 1909, German Chemist Fritz Haber developed a high temperature, high energy process to synthesize plant-available nitrate.
The production of non-atmospheric nitrogen was very appealing, not only to farmers but also to munitions manufacturers who wanted to use it as an element in explosives. When World War II ended, and with it, the need for explosive weapons, the highly profitable nitrate explosive factories were facing the threat of extinction.
They reformatted their companies as agricultural, and a new industry was born.
From that time forward, agricultural use of nitrates increased exponentially. Its use became widespread on large farms over the next 40 years and has tripled since the late 1960s. Over time, this has caused a huge increase in the amount of nitrate/nitrite that is present in our waterways and oceans. Once they are broken out of their atmospheric form, nitrates/nitrites are highly soluble, which allows them to move very freely through water without bonding to soil. These nitrates/nitrites flow from farms into streams and rivers, and as these waterways merge on their way toward the ocean, the concentration of nitrates/nitrites begins to change the chemical make-up of the water, lowering available oxygen.
In rivers and lakes, there can be a measurable impact on plant and animal life, and in the oceans it can have a catastrophic effect.
As this water enters our oceans, it forms vast algal blooms and lowers the oxygen level to the point that no other plant or animals can survive. For example, the nitrate/nitrite-rich waters which leave the Mississippi River and enter the Gulf of Mexico, have created a “dead zone” that covers 6,000 to 7,000 square miles.
Preventing the use of synthetic nitrates/nitrites upstream is essential in allowing our natural systems to heal themselves, and we can all do our part to help in this healing. As we see in so many areas of concern in our food system, the most effective way to reverse this trend is to purchase local, certified organic foods whenever possible.