Save Freshwater and Marine Habitats: Ban the Use of Synthetic Nitrogen Fertiliser

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The use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on UK farms poses a grave threat to the environment. You may well have seen many streams in the UK coloured a thick, sickly green - in fact, just down the road from where I live in York is a stream that spends much of the year smothered by a thick green layer: a stream which runs right into the river Ouse. What you may not know, however, is that this layer of green is an 'algal bloom', or an unusually large amount of algae accumulating in a stream, river, or lake; a primary cause of which is synthetic nitrogen fertiliser runoff from farms where it is sprayed on crops. 

When synthetic nitrogen fertiliser runs off from farms into streams, the resulting high concentration of nutrients leads to an explosion in algae populations. As the algae forms its distinct thick layer, it blocks out sunlight from reaching the bottom of the stream or lake, and any water dwelling plants are killed due to the resulting inability to photosynthesise. This, in turn, leads to a depletion of oxygen in the water which kills much of the animal life that may have been living there: fish, crayfish, tadpoles, and mayfly larvae to name but a few. This does not only cause grave problems for freshwater environments. When these chemicals pass through the streams and rivers and out into the oceans, they are responsible for 'marine dead zones', or hypoxic zones, where the oxygen levels of an area of sea floor are too low to support life, rendering the area essentially ecologically dead. There are currently over 400 marine dead zones across the globe, including many found in all corners of the UK's coastal waters, and that number is increasing year by year. 

The disturbing effects of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use does not end with the pollution of marine and freshwater habitats. Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is also a key player in global warming. A 2007 study of the effects of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on soil carbon sequestration (the process of carbon capture and thus removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) in the Journal of Environmental Quality, found that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is rapidly depleting soil's carbon sequestration abilities. Rather than storing carbon from the atmosphere, carbon is being released into the atmosphere as CO2. It is not only carbon dioxide that synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is responsible for the release of, but also nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas but with a far greater warming capacity than carbon dioxide, and a longer lifespan. 

The environmental and ethical implications of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser do not even stop there, as it is not just their resulting use which damages the natural environment, but also their production. The extraction and manipulation of fossil fuels is required to produce synthetic nitrogen fertiliser in the first place, so it's continued production, let alone use, already guarantees an element of pollution. 

The use of a chemical that requires fossil fuels to create; releases dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; and directly pollutes marine and freshwater habitats rendering them unable to support their naturally occurring species is a prime example of the total disregard the UK's (amongst many other countries) environmental and agricultural policies can have for the natural environment, and thus I am calling on UK Secretary of State for the Department of Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs: Michael Gove, to see to it that the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser be significantly reduced with immediate effect, and totally removed from UK agriculture in the near future.