Fertilizer Institute responds to article

The following rebuts a recent article on the ecological effects of fertilizer that appeared in Science magazine:

An article recently published in Science Magazine ignores many facts, and in doing so, paints a distorted picture of fertilizer’s role in the environment.

The article, “Forecasting Agriculturally Driven Global Change,” published in the magazine’s April 13 issue attempts to provide an estimate of the environmental impacts of agriculture within the next fifty years by looking at increases in global population and wealth. However, the study misses the point on several issues, including its projections for future global nitrogen fertilizer use, nitrogen fertilizer’s role in the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and technology’s role in current and future fertilizer use efficiencies. A most glaring example of the study’s shortcomings is the authors’ decision to ignore existing data on future world fertilizer requirements. A recent publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Fertilizer Requirements in 2015 and 2030” projects total global nitrogen fertilization will increase by 12.9 percent during the next 15 years and 23.7 percent in the next thirty years. A significant difference from the authors’ estimate of a 62.7 percent increase within just the next twenty years. Further, extrapolations 50 years into the future are greater than should have been scientifically accepted since the trends were established from a 35 year database.

The authors’ statements about nitrogen fertilizer’s role in creating the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico also ignore several established facts. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico has been recognized since 1935 and has probably existed for centuries, long before commercial fertilizer had even been developed. Total nitrogen discharge to the Gulf of Mexico by the Mississippi River has decreased slightly since 1980 and nitrate-N discharge to the Gulf has moved slightly upward, while nitrogen fertilizer consumption has remained level – and even trended downward in the last two years. If fertilizer N were the direct cause of an increase in the hypoxic zone, it would have to influence the total N or nitrogen “loading” to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico . Research has shown there is no significant relationship between nitrogen fertilizer sales and nitrogen loading to the Gulf over the last twenty years. “Let us not forget the pivotal role fertilizer plays in global food production and the corresponding economic and lifestyle improvements,” said TFI President Gary D. Myers. “We know that improved living standards can be tied to increasing awareness of and efforts to protect the environment. This article seems to deny the correlation between living standards, wealth, and environmental and health safeguards.”

“I am most disappointed in the quality of the data in this article,” Myers said. “A respected journal like Science bears a responsibility to present facts, unembellished by ideology of any kind.”

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