Chemical fertilizers are important for the cost-effective production of commercial crops, and have been since the 1930s. With a growing population and high cost of living, a bountiful harvest ensures enough food is available for everyone at affordable prices. However, using chemical fertilizers do have their hidden dangers about which most people may not know.
Why Use Fertilizers?
The purpose of any fertilizer is to increase the amount of nutrients in soil that make it more fertile and friendly to plant growth. Typically present in fertilizers are one or more of the macronutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or NPK. Any one of these is pretty much all a plant needs to grow, and grow fast. Other nutrients may also be present, depending on the source.
There are two main types of fertilizers, organic and chemical. As the name suggests, organic fertilizers come from organic sources such animal manure and plants. They tend to be hit-and-miss unless processed carefully, in which case they tend to be expensive. Chemical fertilizers come from inorganic materials, which undergo chemical treatments. The formulations are precise and deliberate, depending on its intended use, and they are relatively cost-effective.
At face value, you might think that chemical fertilizers give farmers more control over their crop production at the right price. You would be right, but you would also be wrong. Chemical fertilizers do allow farmers to produce more and/or high-quality crops in the short-term, but may lead to fewer or poor quality crops in the long term. This is because of the intricacies of soil health.
Much like humans, the soil needs a delicate balance of nutrients to remain healthy. While NPK can definitely help plants and crops grow, simply adding them to the soil without regard for keeping the balance can lead to unintended consequences or hidden dangers.
One of the problems with chemical fertilizers is they seep through the soil into the groundwater and other water sources, leading to contamination. Now, NPK in small quantities is non-toxic, but a lot can kill the balance of nature in various ways. Nitrogen is especially tricky.
The environmental issues of using chemical fertilizers are bad, and they will take many years to address. However, an immediate concern with chemical fertilizers is the effect on human health.
At the very least, food crops produced using chemical fertilizers may not be as nutritious as they should be. This is because chemical fertilizers trade fast growth for health in plants, resulting in crops that have less nutritional value. Plants will grow on little more than NPK, but they will be missing or developing less of essential nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron. This can have a small but cumulative effect on the health of people that consume them.
A relatively recent study, however, shows that chemical fertilizers may play a significant role in the development of methemoglobinemia, otherwise known as Blue Baby syndrome. Researchers believe the condition results from feeding the infants with baby formula using well water contaminated with nitrates. The baby literally turns blue and may eventually lead to coma or death.
Chemical fertilizer contamination is not just a danger in rural areas, either. Much of the excess fertilizer originates from cities, applied over residential and commercial lawns and making their way to the water supply. The problem is such that many cities have laws restricting the use of chemical fertilizers in public spaces.
Chemical fertilizers have their uses, but they also have hidden dangers. Whether used in a farm or lawn, applying more than the plants can use to help them grow results in damage to the environment and human health. Because the damage caused by chemical fertilizers is often long-term and cumulative, it may be wiser to consider alternative and sustainable methods of fertilizing the soil.