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article imageEnvironmental impact of fertilizers

By Tim Sandle     Oct 23, 2013 in Environment
Nitrogen from fertilizers may persist in soil for 80 years, according to a new report. This means that fertilizer applied today could still be around in 2093.
The science study tracking nitrogen levels is the first study to measure how long nitrogen-based fertilizers persist in the field. Nitrogen is added to fertilizers to enhance nitrogen levels in the soil, thereby helping crops to grow. The addition of nitrogen does, however, raise concerns about environmental pollution, especially of rivers and streams.
The study began in 1982 when a research team led by Mathieu Sebilo of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris infused soil with fertilizer containing nitrogen-15, a form of the element uncommon in nature (and therefor easy to track).
A year later, the researchers found that crops had absorbed around half of the fertilizer, with most of the rest taken up by microorganisms and released back into the soil.
For the next thirty years, the scientists grew sugar beets and winter wheat and fertilized them with compounds containing the more common nitrogen-14. They found that nitrogen-15 in the soil decreased slowly, with small amounts taken up by plants or leached into groundwater each year. In 2010, 12 to 15 percent of the original nitrogen-15 remained in the soil; the researchers calculate that it will take at least another 50 years for it to disappear entirely.
The finding helps explain why nitrogen pollution can continue in rivers even when farmers in the area reduce their fertilizer use. The findings have implications for policy makers when considering the environmental impact of fertilizer use.
The findings have been reported in the journal in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
More about Fertilizer, Nitrogen, Pollution, Rivers, Streams
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