Published: June 3, 2013

Using science to address
farm pollution

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Diana Stuart Sociology office: (269) 761-2264

Half of the nitrogen-based fertilizer used on U.S. crops seeps into the environment, prompting an interdisciplinary team of Michigan State University scientists to investigate ways to curb pollution.

Armed with a $1.46 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the team will analyze soil, crop and climate conditions at 75 Midwestern corn farms and conduct surveys and interviews with farmers.

There are many social, educational and economic barriers to using environmentally friendly farming practices. A variety of technologies exist to conserve fertilizer, yet they are not used widely. Further, fertilizer is often applied to corn in the fall – about six months before the crop needs it.

The project will identify the factors influencing farmers’ decisions and combine this with the scientific findings from the farms to get a better idea of how human action and climate change influence the amount of nitrogen lost through the air and water supply.

“Results from this project will be useful to inform approaches on how best to reduce water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from Midwestern corn farming,” said Diana Stuart, lead investigator on the project. “It will provide new information and models to aid policymakers working to curb pollution and climate change.”

As an environmental sociologist working out of MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station, Stuart explores the relationship between agriculture, conservation and climate change. She’ll work with Phil Robertson, a nitrogen biogeochemist; Bruno Basso, a geological scientist; Sandy Marquart-Pyatt, a sociologist; and Jinhua Zhao, an environmental and natural resource economist.

The researchers will focus on farms in Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, three of the largest corn-producing states. Grown on more than 400,000 domestic farms, corn is the nation’s biggest field crop but also uses the most nitrogen-based fertilizer.

The use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased tenfold in the past 60 years. Fertilizer allows substantially more food to be grown in a given area, but also is one of the hardest substances to remove from the environment.

Only 50 percent of nitrogen fertilizer is taken up by the crop; the other 50 percent remains in soils or leaves through air, surface water or groundwater pathways. Nitrogen fertilizer can harm coastal fisheries and contribute to smog and climate change, the researchers say.

A sociologist who explores the relationship between agriculture, conservation and climate change, Diana Stuart will lead a $1.46 million, four-year project to address farm pollution.