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The High Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page and our CAFO's vs. Free Range page.

My heart aches for the people of West, Texas, the tiny town where a fertilizer plant recently blew up. Many of the folks who perished in the blast were heroic volunteer firefighters who ran into danger instead of away from it.

With 14 dead and 200 injured, and a nearby nursing home, school, and apartment complex either badly damaged or destroyed, West's brave citizens have hard work ahead.

As a nation, we must prevent a disaster like this from happening again. For starters, we can make fertilizer plants safer and locate them away from schools and nursing homes from now on.

This tragedy is even more painful because the factory was making a product - nitrogen fertilizer - that perhaps should not be used at all.

Here's a big question we should all be asking: Why do Americans use so much nitrogen fertilizer in the first place?

Scientists discovered two centuries ago that plants need nitrogen, a building block of protein, to grow.

Whether you fertilize your soil with manure or with the fertilizer manufactured in the plant that just blew up, you're adding nitrogen to your soil. Too much nitrogen kills your plants. But without nitrogen, plants can't grow.

That seems simple. But there's more to it. Another element, carbon, is inextricably linked to nitrogen. Microbes in the soil need both carbon and nitrogen to survive, and they need them in the right ratios. Add too much nitrogen, and the microbes end up depleting the carbon in the soil as a result.


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