The tragic explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which killed 15 people and injured 200, has raised questions about the agriculture industry's reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. Some have speculated that the explosion was exacerbated by the massive amounts of ammonium nitrate, a compound used to make explosives, that the company which owns the plant had stored at the facility without reporting it to the Department of Homeland Security.
The incident has brought to light larger concerns about the widespread use of the chemical fertilizers plant produced and how these substances can be detrimental to the country's water supply, soil and wildlife.
According to a recent article in Grist.org, an environmental news site, nitrogen fertilizers have been popular since the early 20th century. But farmers have been using so much of them that plants cannot absorb it all, so much of it is washed away in runoff, creating "dead zones" in local ponds that can no longer be inhabited by aquatic life.
Nitrogen fertilizers can also evaporate once dissolved in water, creating nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
The article points out that one of the biggest obstacles to reducing use of nitrogen fertilizers is the massive amount of corn produced in the U.S., much of which is devoted to feeding livestock. In order for the country to cut back on production of this substance, we'll need to grow less corn, which will be difficult given the institutional and economic pressures that make corn such an enormous part of U.S. agriculture.
Consumers can play a part by purchasing products that are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and other environmentally harmful substances. LifeIsGreen.com will keep you updated on this important issue as more details surface.