"In the past 50 years, led by the United States, global agriculture has come to rely increasingly on a cheap, synthetic form of nitrogen produced in fertilizer factories that are powered by natural gas and other fossil fuels.
Before World War II, when the fertilizer industry was in its infancy, farmers used very little synthetic nitrogen. By 1964, U.S. farmers were applying about 4.3 million tons annually. In 2007, the last year for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has figures, farmers dropped 5.7 million tons on the nation’s corn crop alone. We now know that the undeniable benefits of synthetic nitrogen come with serious costs, both to the environment and to public health.
In this special Grist series, we’ll be looking at where synthetic nitrogen comes from and what our reliance on it is doing to our health and to the health of our waterways and climate. We’ll also be looking at ways in which synthetic nitrogen can be used more wisely—and, as much as possible, phased out."