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Chemical Fertilizers Destroying the Environment & Killing Ocean Life

9 Oct 2004
"Global peril" of fire and fertilisers
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Saturday October 9, 2004
The Guardian (UK)

A project to assess the world's ecosystems has found that the widespread use
of fertilisers and the burning of fossil fuels will severely damage life in
lakes and rivers around the globe.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, launched by the World Bank in
Washington in 2001, examines how any disruption to the environment, whether
by human action or natural events, will harm human health, food production
and natural resources.

Scientists have spent the past three years piecing together data from
thousands of studies. Their official report will be published early next
year, but a first draft shows a number of alarming trends.

A major concern is the increase in nitrogen emissions because of fertiliser
use and the burning of fossil fuels.

"In the past 100 years, emissions have risen from around 20m tonnes a year
to more than 150m tonnes a year," said Robert Watson, the project leader and
the World Bank's chief scientist. "We're emitting more than seven times more
nitrogen and that is going to have incredible implications for ecological
systems."

As an ingredient in fertiliser, nitrogen helps to feed some 2 billion
people. But when it is washed from soils into water courses it can make
rivers and lakes too rich in nutrients.

As a result, algae and other life can grow out of control, eventually
stripping oxygen from the water which fish and other aquatic life need.

Dead zones have already begun to appear, notably in the Gulf of Mexico,
which is fed by nitrogen-rich water from the Mississippi river. "We are
looking at major effects in the US, Europe and south-east Asia," Dr Watson
said.

As the world's population is estimated to grow to 9 billion in 40 years,
food production is expected to become more intensive, requiring ever more
nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

Kenneth Cassman, an expert on environmental health at the University of
Nebraska, said the efficiency of nitrogen use needed to be "massively
improved". "There are a number among us who think this is more important
than carbon emissions, in terms of environmental impact," he said.

In a separate part of the study, the scientists found that global warming
would severely disrupt ecosystems, especially in the developing world, if it
was not kept in check. An increase of more than 2C (3.6F) would be enough to
severely degrade the availability of food, water and human health in
developing countries.

Dr Watson, who worked as a scientific adviser to the White House during the
Clinton administration, said that while the final report would describe
different ways the problems might be dealt with, it was up to governments
and private companies to collaborate.

"We can move in a direction where we destroy our natural heritage or we can
move in a direction where we improve both human wellbeing and maintain our
natural heritage," he said. "We've got choices and we have to decide which
future we want."