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January 29, 2010

China's nitrogen problem

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

Earlier this week I wrote about dinner with Cheng Cunwang, a sustainable food activist who IATP hosted last fall. Once Cheng returned, he began researching pollution from nitrogen fertilizers in China. His findings were  released by Greenpeace China last week.

They haven’t put it on their web site yet, but among their report’s findings:

  • The cost of nitrogen fertilizer that runs off fields and is therefore wasted is 30 billion Chinese yuan ($4.5 billion) per year
  • This runoff constitutes a massive source of freshwater pollution, and as “non-point source” pollution, it is nearly impossible to control
  • Coal is the energy source for 70 percent of China’s nitrogen fertilizer production. Approximately 100 million tons of coal are used for this purpose each year—an amount that's increasing by about 10 percent each year

Following the release, I was interviewed by Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), an influential paper published out of Guangdong. The reporter wanted to know whether China’s experience was unique, whether nitrogen fertilizer overuse is a problem in the United States, and what might be done to control it.

In a nutshell, the U.S. government has actually taken some important steps to reduce fertilizer overuse and pollution. Fertilizer management programs, use of cover crops (although still rarely used on the Midwest's larger sized farms) and letting land along watercourses lay fallow have all helped. (A great short paper on the perils of poor soil nutrition management appeared in Science last summer.) However, nutrient runoff from U.S. agriculture still poses a serious threat to U.S. waterways, a clear sign of which is the enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In both China and the U.S., the root problem is “cheap food” policies that subsidize over-production (of commodity crops in the U.S., and of fertilizer itself in China). The drive to increase yields at all costs—understandable in situations of extreme food insecurity—quickly builds economic constituencies for subsidies that prove difficult to dislodge once food security has been achieved. And cheap food has come to be seen as an entitlement by urban populations around the world whose other rights have been denied or eroded in recent decades. The problem is that a whole slew of externalities result from such policies, from the environmental and economic costs outlined in Cheng’s report to epidemic childhood obesity in the U.S. and the undermining of food security in poor countries—the destination of “surplus” commodities from the United States.

The result is that China basically has nitrogen coming out of its ears. For literally thousands of years, China’s farmers were able to maintain soil fertility through careful management of organic matter. They may not have known it was nitrogen they were managing, but farmers here went to tremendous lengths to retain, renew and recycle organic matter of all kinds. The advent of chemical fertilizers freed up lots of labor for China’s industrialization in the 1980s and 90s, but it turned animal and human wastes—once a prized resource—into a burden. Today manure is the largest source of freshwater pollution. The irony is that it is closely followed by the very nitrogen fertilizers that replaced it!

Jim Harkness

Ben Lilliston

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