Nitrogen Fertilizer is the Solution, Not the Probl
Champion Corn Grower Proves High-Yield Farming can Feed the World While Leaving More Land to Nature
April 17, 2000
April 6, 2000
THE BridgeNews FORUM
The afterglow didn't last long. The Iowa Environmental Council is now blasting Childs for using too much fertilizer.
He used 400 pounds of nitrogen per acre on his record-setting competition plot. The Iowa average is 127 pounds, and the experts at Iowa State University normally recommend only 100 to 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Linda Applegate, who heads the environmental council, said, "I know he isn't putting this much nitrogen on all his land, but farmers are looking to him for an example. We have serious problems in Iowa with over-application of nitrogen. Our water suffers, and so does the water of our downstream neighbors." (Childs uses about 200 pounds per acre on the rest of his corn acres.)
The Iowa Environmental Council may be aiming at the wrong target. High levels of nitrogen fertilizer don't risk public health and don't automatically mean downstream damage to our streams, but they almost aut omatically mean saving huge tracts of forest and other wildlife habitat.
Bob Aukes, a Des Moines, Iowa, farm management consultant, says, "Mr. Childs is using only one acre to produce 394 bushels of corn, while his Iowa neighbors require 2.27 acres. If all Iowa corn growers mimicked Childs' championship performance, more than 63 percent of Iowa's 12 million corn acres could be set aside for wildflowers and pheasants while holding total corn production constant. Or consider what more nitrogen fertilizer and other yield-enhancing inputs (including biotechnology) could do in terms of Iowa exports saving rainforests overseas!
"It is very likely that Childs is friendlier to the environment than the average Iowa corn grower, in addition to being a bold teacher and a true agricultural leader. His 394-bushel yield was also more profitable."
We should waste as little fertilizer as possible by preventing it from running into local streams. But the current eco-campaign against chemical nitrogen is wrong-headed.
First, doctors in 1945 made a mistake when they blamed nitrogen in drinking water for causing the famous Blue Baby Syndrome. Today's medical evidence says it's caused by severe gastroenteritis in small infants (usually from bacterial contamination, but sometimes from copper poisoning or even lactose intolerance). We could double the current 10 parts per million nitrate allowed in drinking water without putting any children at risk.
Second, nitrogen is absolutely vital to growing food. It takes 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of nitrogen to produce a ton of wheat. You can put 400 kilograms of nitrogen on one hectare (2.47 acres) of land and grow 18 tons of wheat.
Or you can spread out the fertilizer at 25 kilograms per hectare, and get the same wheat from 18 hectares of land. But with low yields you take 17 times as much land away from nature.
Third, nitrogen in the water is not basically due to soil erosion. In Iowa, the nitrogen mostly comes down the drain tile. A recent study of the hilly Coon Creek watershed in Wisconsin found that its farmers are suffering only 6 percent as much erosion as they lost in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
Coon Creek farmers don't even use much conservation tillage. With conservation tillage, Iowa farmers have probably improved their soil conservation even more than Coon Creek farmers have.
Fourth, we have no national or global nitrogen problem. A White House task force has said it can find no economic or ecological damage from the nutrients entering the Gulf of Mexico from Midwest rivers. In the places where there is a real problem with algae blooms, it should be dealt with locally.
And remember that organic farms devote lots of land to legumes, growing nitrogen for follow-on crops. Organic farms may thus leak at least as much nitrogen per bushel of corn produced as does Childs. High-yield farmers take their nitrogen from the air, which is 78 per cent nitrogen.
How does the Iowa Environmental Council suggest we feed a probable peak human population of 8.5 billion in 2050? If they choose organic farms that yield 80 bushels of corn per acre, how much room for wildlife will be left on Mother Earth?
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