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Report: Fertilizer is killing Gulf fish

Monday, September 21, 2009

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Nancy Cole

Published April 10, 2006

Farmers in 15 northeast Arkansas counties are among the top contributors of fertilizer pollution that creates a "dead zone" of more than 5, 000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study released Monday by the Environmental Working Group.

Scientists have located about 100, 000 square miles of oxygen-starved waterways worldwide where fish have difficulty reproducing and die. Many of these dead zones, like the one at the mouth of the Mississippi River, are caused in large part by nitrogen-fertilizer runoff.

Congress could reduce this environmental damage by shifting federal farm-subsidy money away from commodity programs and toward conservation programs, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

"If we expand the environmental components of these subsidy programs, we think we also have a much better chance of defending them at the [World Trade Organization ]," Cook said Monday in a conference call.

More money should be made available for federal conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, particularly in areas of the Mississippi River basin that are the major sources of fertilizer pollution in the Gulf, he said.

The Environmental Working Group found that commodityprogram payments in the top six Arkansas counties that contribute to fertilizer pollution in the Gulf - Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi, Poinsett and St. Francis - totaled $ 1. 1 billion between 1995 and 2002, 412 times more than the $ 2. 8 million in conservation-program payments made in those counties during the same time period.

"In the mainstream scientific community, there's very little debate about the hypoxic zone," patches of water that lack oxygen, or that fertilizer runoff is a major cause of the problem, said Bill Herz, vice president of scientific programs for The Fertilizer Institute.

"We certainly support and, in fact, strongly advocate through our nutrient-use task force and our product-stewardship efforts nutrient-management planning at all levels on the farm. And we also support increased conservation funding of the USDA programs, but not necessarily at the expense of all the subsidy programs," he said.

Good nutrient management does not necessarily mean less fertilizer use, but rather less fertilizer lost, Herz said.

"It has to do with agronomic balance and getting the ratios of nutrients correct on the field. When those balances are in place, more nutrients stay in the soil and more are taken up into the root zone and the plant itself, and thus the system is working more efficiently," he said.

The Environmental Working Group's study found that 80 percent of the fertilizer pollution in the Gulf "issues from just 15 percent of the land base in the Mississippi River basin," so a welltargeted response could have a tremendous impact, Cook said.

Compliance with nutrientmanagement plans, for example, could become a logical requirement to qualify for commodity-program payments in regions susceptible to nitrogen pollution, he said.

Mary Booth, the senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group who authored the fertilizer-pollution study, said "a tiny percentage" of land would need to be taken out of agricultural production in order to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Gulf, and conservation payments on that land would provide the farm with a reliable source of income not tied to commodity prices.

"Farmers want to do the right thing," but policymakers need to make the funding available, she said.

"One thing that this report does is... point out the discrepancy in how conservation monies and programs are allocated.... [The report ] really shows us where conservation efforts can be targeted to have... the most bang for the buck."

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