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Feeding the world, poisoning the planet

First of five articles

AASEN, Netherlands -- Leopold Hendrick admits a visitor through the locked doors of the world's first bureaucracy dedicated to tracking and taxing animal waste, a kind of manure IRS. The government administrator apologizes for the tight security: "We are not so popular. Some farmers broke in and tried to steal their dossiers."

Other nations should track plutonium so closely.

Dutch farmers must report to the nation's 340-employee Levy Bureau how much their 4.2 million cattle, 14 million pigs and 108 million chickens eat. They must inform the bureau of their farms' precise output, the meat and dairy products they ship away.

And especially, they must tell the bureau how much manure is left behind and what happens to each and every bit of it. Using bar-coded samples, computerized and cross-referenced to papers filed by haulers, the agency meticulously tracks the manure with a system worthy of high-level hazardous waste. The Netherlands, with the highest concentration of livestock anywhere, might simply be a few years ahead of the rest of the world in confronting the planet's next big wave of pollution woes. The culprit is way too much nitrogen, which in this case seeps from animal manure.

Holland's extraordinary efforts to control nitrogen dramatize the unprecedented imbalance that humans have wrought in Earth's basic chemistry as a result of the past half-century of overfertilization.

Nitrogen is one of the most common elements. A vital building block of all plant and animal tissue, it is concentrated in all human sewage and animal manure, in widely applied crop fertilizers and even in polluted air - all the products of human endeavors.

Humans "have altered nitrogen more than any other element," says Stanford University ecologist Peter Vitousek.

In just the past few decades, industrialization, population growth and intensive use of chemical fertilizers have doubled the amount of nitrogen in circulation among living things.

By contrast, human changes to atmospheric carbon dioxide - blamed for global warming - represent an increase of no more than 10 percent in Earth's natural supply, Vitousek says.

And this sudden explosion of nitrogen has meant mounting worldwide environmental problems that have already had lethal effects - problems that promise to soon get worse and, some scientists predict, to reach the point of calamity.

Increasing signs that the chemical balance of the planet is out of whack, either wholly or partly from an oversupply of nitrogen, are already apparent in virtually every corner of the world:

• Frequent, thick blooms of deadly algae in coastal areas, from Finnish beaches to Hong Kong harbors. During one such "red tide," fish farmers near the Chinese city took to the sea in their sampans in a desperate effort to literally turn back the toxic tide with their engines.

• Historic and once-teeming fishing waters now devoid of oxygen and life. Fully one-third of the water in the Chesapeake Bay turns lifeless most summers. In the Black Sea, once Russia's Riviera, 5 million tons of fish have suffocated in less than two decades.

• Drastic declines in underwater beds of sea grasses and critical coral reefs. In Australia, diver Ben Cropp bemoans the loss of "the viz" - the sparkling visibility - in parts of the Great Barrier Reef. A world away, Maryland biologist Mike Naylor maps the disappearance of grasses that nurture Chesapeake blue crabs.

• Widespread damage to far-flung grasslands and forests. Even in remote areas, from Minnesota to the Netherlands, the rain is so laden with fertilizer that it overwhelms delicate native plants.

• Suspected links to a variety of human health problems, from cancer to skin rashes, respiratory troubles to memory failure. When the toxic Pfiesteria microbe bloomed in nitrogen-laden rivers on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore in 1997, doctors documented a brand new illness. "Estuarine associated syndrome" has many symptoms, the main one a change in victims' brain function that leaves blanks in their memories.

Earth's growing overabundance of nitrogen is rooted in agriculture's desperate 10,000-year search for ways to boost crop yields, a dream not realized until the early 20th century when a new invention enabled humans for the first time to extract limitless amounts of this potent chemical from the air.

That epochal breakthrough, combined with growing amounts of nitrogen from fossil fuels burned in autos and industries, flooded our planet with one of nature's most powerful growth stimulants, upsetting the natural balance adapted over tens of millions of years to scant rations of fertilizer.

If the history of the planet were compressed into a single year, this enormous change occurred just 25 seconds before midnight on New Year's Eve.

While much of the impact is out of sight and, for many, out of mind, there's abundant scientific proof that too much nitrogen is creating environmental nightmares.

Hardest hit are coastal bays and oceans - places such as the Chesapeake, the Gulf of Mexico, Europe's Baltic Sea and the East China Sea - where rivers draining agricultural heartlands dump nitrogen-laden runoff from fertilizers and manure.

To make matters worse, most of the world's population lives close to coastal waters. Their sewage and air pollution add huge amounts of nitrogen to the air and water, intensifying the damage done by runoff.

More than half the United States' 127 coastal bays, including the Chesapeake, are tainted by excess nitrogen, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has found. Similar problems have turned up in Scandinavian fjords, Chinese harbors and even along Australia's relatively isolated Great Barrier Reef.

Such coastal waters represent perhaps half of 1 percent of the globe's oceans, but they account for an estimated 30 percent of total marine productivity - concentrating the impact of the chemical imbalance in ways that are repeated around the world.

"Everywhere you go, unfortunately, you find the signs" of nitrogen pollution, says Boston University ecologist Ivan Valiela. "People are noticing it in their own areas. But they don't realize it's happening in every other bay and pond and shoreline of the world."

So Marylanders who miss wading and netting soft crabs in the once-clear and grassy shallows of the bay have much in common with Finns who reach their summer cabins to find shorelines slimed with algae so toxic that their dogs die when they lick it off their fur.

In Cape Cod's Waquoit Bay, nitrogen-rich sewage from shoreside septic tanks has wiped out a once-thriving scallop fishery. "I've given up on ever raising enough scallops to market," says shellfish farmer Denise Kelley. "I just want enough scallops to have dinner."

In Hong Kong, fish farmer Law Kwok-hong lost $52,000 worth of snapper and grouper to red tides triggered by nitrogen pollution. "I think I'm the last generation of fishermen in my family," says the sixth-generation waterman.

In Louisiana, the Mississippi River is so loaded with nitrogen runoff from Midwestern farms that when its floodwaters overflow into nearby Lake Pontchartrain, the lake turns lethal. The last time that happened, in 1997, crabbers found "all the crabs dead in their traps," recalls fisherman Pete Gerica of Bayou Sauvage.

And in the Baltic Sea, pike fishing in Poland has collapsed - as have two of the sea's three cod spawning areas that lie off the Swedish coast. Says Swedish marine ecologist Ragnar Elmgren: "Cod are very much in trouble, with the risk that other species will follow."

Hunger for fertilizer

As the world's population grows, demand soars for meat - and the grain that feeds the livestock takes lots of nitrogen fertilizer to produce. Fossil fuel use also increases. So putting the nitrogen genie back in the bottle might not be possible.

Knowledgeable scientists agree that the problems in many places will get worse before they get better. A key reason is the sheer magnitude of the change. Waterways of Europe and North America now carry up to 20 times as much nitrogen as before the Industrial Revolution. The Chesapeake Bay might receive six or seven times the nitrogen as in pre-Colonial times.

Meanwhile, most of the world's farmers clamor for more nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer, a key component in the worldwide "green revolution" that has boosted crop yields several-fold in many regions, particularly in the Third World.

To comprehend the full force of the hunger for fertilizer, begin with the German chemist Justus von Liebig's 18th-century diatribe against English gangs dispatched to exhume bones, to be ground up for precious crop nutrients.

England "is robbing all other countries of their fertility," von Liebig wrote. "She has turned up the battlefields of Leipzig and Waterloo and of Crimea. Already from the catacombs of Sicily she has carried away skeletons of generations ... removes from the shores of other countries the manurial equivalent of three million and a half of men. Like a vampire she hangs from the neck of Europe."

America, too, lusted after fertilizer. The 19th-century railroads hauled the bleached bones of slaughtered buffalo east to fertilizer factories. In 1856, Congress empowered any American citizen discovering islands encrusted with nitrogen-rich bird droppings to take possession of them as a national resource.

On the eve of the 20th century, the demand for nitrogen was such that a prestigious chemist, Sir William Crookes, challenged the British Association for the Advancement of Science: World population would soon outstrip agriculture's ability to feed it, he said, and only more nitrogen fertilizer could significantly boost grain yields that had risen sluggishly since the time of the Greeks and Romans.

In the vast canopy of the planet's air lay the only hope for unrestrained human population growth, Crookes said - if only it could be tapped.

Almost four-fifths of the world's atmosphere - some 4 quadrillion tons - is nitrogen, but in a molecular form that made this ocean of food-growing energy largely untappable. Throughout evolution, nature devised only two ways to turn a relative pittance of nitrogen - 90 million to 140 million tons a year - into fertilizer.

Lightning rips nitrogen molecules apart; they recombine with oxygen and hydrogen and enrich the soil as they fall to Earth in rain. And bacteria in the roots of alfalfa, soybeans and certain other plants capture atmospheric nitrogen and change its chemistry to make it useful.

But within a decade of Crookes' speech, two Germans had worked out a way to wring nitrogen from the air cheaply and in large quantities. Fritz Haber, the initial discoverer of the process, and Carl Bosch, who later perfected it commercially, won separate Nobel Prizes for their work.

Today, almost a century later, the Haber-Bosch process remains the basis of operation for giant fertilizer-making factories around the world that convert almost 90 million tons a year of inert, gaseous atmospheric nitrogen into anhydrous ammonia, a potent growth elixir of nitrogen and hydrogen. Some leading food policy experts, such as ecologist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, consider this process by far "the most significant invention of the 20th century."

At first, the vast new quantities of energy liberated from the air by the Haber-Bosch process were employed mostly in bombs and other munitions. The commercial explosives industry still uses some 2 million tons of nitrogen a year, and nitrogen fertilizer remains a terrorist favorite for making bombs - such as the one Timothy J. McVeigh used in 1995 to bring down the Oklahoma City federal building.

But after World War II, nitrogen fertilizer began to trigger a profound agricultural revolution around the world, sharply boosting crop yields in developing nations.

Today a vast, specialized infrastructure - barges, pipelines, oceangoing ships, rail tank cars - distributes nitrogen to the ends of the Earth.

The results have been extraordinary. Vitousek estimates all this extra nutrition garnered from the air "is why around 2 billion of the 6 billion people on Earth are alive now."

Consider China, which supports the rapidly rising dietary demands of more than 20 percent of the world's population - about 1.3 billion people - on a limited and dwindling amount of arable land. Its demands for more and more fertilizer will be the main force behind a doubling of world nitrogen use over the next 20 years.

That means farmers like 58-year-old Chen Qisong, working today in East China's Tai Lake region just south of the Yangtze River, no longer have to endure the drudgery that once afflicted their fathers.

Chen has gone from year-round backbreaking labor in the 1960s to much less strenuous toil only about 30 days a year. He used to earn less than 40 cents a day working a one-fifth-acre plot. The work so exhausted him that he weighed a scant 132 pounds.

Today, with chemical fertilizers and modern machinery, he oversees several acres of rice and wheat and weighs 165 pounds.

But switching to chemicals from such traditional methods of agriculture as applying manure to the area's crops also means that the young farmers in this region cannot recall when its waters were clear and filled with fish, prawns and turtles. The river below Chen's fields now is dense brown, and aquatic life has long vanished.

Chen's focus, however, remains firmly on his newfound prosperity. He works "100 times more land," he says proudly, "but I'm fatter than then."

Dead waters

On land, the impact of so much nitrogen can take unexpected twists, such as the growing nuisance of Maryland's population of white-tailed deer. They're so well-nourished by heavily fertilized grain fields that they're having twins and even triplets.

Similarly, corn-fed North American snow geese now reproduce so much that they're ruining their Arctic tundra nesting grounds. And in the Netherlands, edible mushrooms that used to grow in the roots of certain trees, capturing nitrogen from the air for their hosts, have disappeared as the atmosphere has become so enriched with fertilizer that the mushrooms are obsolete.

But it's in water that the effects of doubling the planet's nitrogen have most clearly been disastrous.

The reason: Excess nitrogen stimulates the growth of algae in water, just as it does green plants on land. But for aquatic environments, "greener" is not necessarily better.

While the air has plenty of oxygen to offset the amount consumed by the inevitable decay of vegetation on land, water holds only one-twentieth to one-fiftieth as much.

So more algal growth and decay rapidly deplete the oxygen in water, quickly turning "greener" waters into "dead zones" of lifeless waters, where bottom mud reeks with the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide.

Summertime algae is so thick in the Gulf of Mexico's huge dead zone, a few miles off the Louisiana coast, that divers can't see their own hands at depths below about 10 feet. Around the world, there are more than 50 dead zones like this from the Chesapeake to Hong Kong, some of them covering thousands of square miles.

Moreover, while the impact on land of too much fertilizer can often be managed, its effects on water are frequently beyond human control: highly toxic blooms of algae known as red or brown tides, reductions in the water clarity that some fish need for hunting, overgrown corals and shaded-out forests of rooted underwater grasses that make up some of Earth's most productive habitats.

Around the globe, scientists believe, these lush, underwater grass meadows are disappearing even faster than tropical rain forests. In recent decades, for example, the Chesapeake Bay has lost about 90 percent of the grass beds that once carpeted a half-million acres or more of its bottom.

Chemical fertilizer is not the only source of too much nitrogen.

The burning of coal, gas and oil liberates nitrogen in quantities second only to fertilizer production. Worldwide, smokestacks and tailpipes are the source of about one-fourth of the "excess" nitrogen. In places downwind of heavy industry, such as the northeastern United States, fossil fuel burning can be the major source of nitrogen overload.

World demand for energy and cars means this will continue increasing. Some nations, like the United States, control nitrogen emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes, but that's mainly for smog prevention, and those regulations are not strict enough to protect water quality.

With 70 percent of humans worldwide living in coastal plains, human sewage is another large contributor. In most places, the preferred sewage disposal method remains piping it into coastal waters.

And then there's animal waste, such as the Dutch Levy Bureau monitors to limit the nitrogen polluting the Netherlands' air and water.

In the United States, animals produce 130 times more waste than people - about 5 tons' worth of animal waste per person a year, says a 1997 U.S. Senate study. In the Netherlands, with far less land than the United States on which to spread manure, it's about 6 tons of manure per resident annually.

So the Dutch Levy Bureau tries to limit "surplus" manure - animal waste that isn't recycled into growing crops and that can end up in the air or water- with such vigilance that it tracks manure records with the same techniques used to catch drug money launderers. Taxes on the waste can run into thousands of dollars a year if a farmer isn't careful.

"But it is not like taxes," says Hendrick, "because our goal is that eventually, no one pays anything."

Bleak forecast

With its network of canals and dikes, Holland is one of the world's most altered landscapes, and human-made changes like these worsen the nitrogen problem. The draining of wetlands and cutting of forests have removed vital natural filters and buffers that could have sopped up nutrient-rich runoff before it ever reached rivers and the coasts.

Another factor that looms increasingly large is global warming, which appears to be heating up the world's oceans. Even slightly elevated water temperatures can increase the impact of nutrients like nitrogen on everything from coral reefs to cholera outbreaks.

So all of these factors - fertilizer, fossil fuels, human sewage, animal waste, landscape changes and global warming - combine for a bleak forecast, particularly for coastal waters.

"Our prediction is that, if there is no reversal in the next 10 years, we will see some amazing calamities in our coastal systems," says Robert Diaz, a marine ecologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Eastern Europe's Black Sea is a case study in what can happen, Diaz says. Its depths have been lifeless for thousands of years, but 30 years ago the world's biggest dead zone formed in waters once rich with sea life along the northwestern coastline.

University of Maryland ecologist Donald Boesch wryly calls the Black Sea, which receives fertilizer-laden water from the Danube and other major rivers, "the poster child for anoxia," the absence of oxygen.

"In the 1950s you see the beginnings of [oxygen decline], worsening measurably by the '60s," Diaz says. "In the 1970s, you see people noticing, see popular press reports, and in the 1980s the system is going critical and collapsing.

"In the '90s, you see, of 24 prized fish species caught in the '60s, virtually all are gone."

A study of such oxygen-troubled waters around the world by Diaz and his colleague, Rutger Rosenberg of Sweden's Kristineberg Marine Laboratory, shows no large system - including the Chesapeake - has recovered once it suffered a persistent lack of oxygen.

And now because of too much nitrogen, they conclude, many of the globe's coastal waters appear to be approaching a point of no return - a point at which, Diaz says, "catastrophic events may overcome the systems."

Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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