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It is a substance people use to help improve crop growth. This practice goes back thousands of years, when our ancestors progressively settled down and grew crops to feed themselves.
By observing how their crops grew, each generation contributed to the discovery of how different elements could have a positive effect, which particularly depended on meteorological conditions, soil types, etc.
These interventions were appropriate, for instance, they used weeds (which is what we call them today), ashes, animal and human waste, bones, blood, silt, etc. Their basic principle was to grow seeds which were adapted to the area, rainfall and sunshine levels. The ‘fertilizers’ used by our ancestors were very beneficial. In other words, thousands of years ago, nobody would have tried to grow corn in a drought-prone region... (We will return to this topic later).
The development of the chemicals industry during the 21st century changed everything, since it enabled the production of concentrated fertilizer containing, for example, (together or separately): nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, copper, zinc, calcium, (boron), cobalt, manganese, magnesium, etc.
It is important to note that plants actually need these substances for their growth (depending on their specific individual needs) but for millions of years, these substances were naturally available in their environment, without needing any human intervention.
Are fertilizers dangerous?
We must go into detail in our response to this question, so that we can get not one, but many answers! Which fertilizers are we talking about? For instance: compost patiently prepared by Mother Nature and a respectful gardener, or nitrogen or phosphate-based fertilizers used without restraint, which have resulted in pollution of the water table?
A fair response regarding the dangers of fertilizers could be as follows: the moderate use of fertilizers on seeds adapted to their natural environment should be compatible with respect for man and the environment.
We will analyse this response in detail, starting with ‘moderate use’, which does away with intensive use. Because no specialist can say that it will be possible to feed 9 billion humans by 2050 by totally doing away with the use of fertilizers. Why should they be used so recklessly? Which fertilizers would be compatible with respect for the environment? How can we justify that the pollution generated by a single yield next year will continue to be effective for ten or more years? The maximum authorised amount should take into account the effects at short, medium and long term on living beings and the environment…
Let’s continue with ‘seeds adapted to their natural habitat’ which implies not forcing nature to grow anything in just any place. This is where we come across the concept of ‘sustainable agriculture’, which integrates the economic viability of an operation, because everyone has the right to work the land to support themselves, but should not have a negative impact on the environment.
In an ideal world, we should even be able to talk about organic agriculture which does not use any chemical, synthetic or genetically modified substances. However, the awful abuse by industrial agricultural operations, particularly the use of pesticides (see the CyberDodo file here http://fr.cyberdodo.com/dossier/cyberdodo-et-les-pesticides/) which contains increasingly resistant harmful substances, could make it difficult to directly convert to all things ‘organic’ without going – at least temporarily – through the interesting phase of ‘sustainable agriculture’.
By not just planting anything anywhere, we are respecting natural selection, which went through the process of adapting plants to the potential and constraints of certain areas during a period of millions of years. By forgetting this reality, we are ignoring biodiversity and the links that bind all living species.
We conclude this chapter on the dangers of fertilizers with the issue of ‘respect for mankind and the environment’, because it is unacceptable to dump millions of tonnes of chemical products on the environment, as it has negative and sometimes even tragic effects on the health of mankind and negatively impacts the environment. Remember, article 6 of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically states that ‘every child has the inherent right to life and States Parties shall ensure their survival and development’, and this is related to pollution, which we are going to talk about in the last chapter of this file.
Some consequences of the excessive use of chemical fertilizers:
Pollution of water by nitrates
The intensive, excessive usage of nitrogen-based fertilizer for several decades consistently polluted numerous water tables. The situation became increasingly complex due to the period of time, years in fact, which is required for the migration of these nitrates through the soil to natural underground reservoirs. Specialists are still debating about its effects on human health (Cancers, etc.)
Pollution of water by phosphates
As a tragic accompaniment to nitrates, phosphates have largely contributed to the phenomenon of eutrophication of water. This complicated word describes the modification and/or degradation of the aquatic environment. Where fertilizers are concerned, the disposal of large quantities of nitrates and phosphorous in rivers, lakes and seas provides important sources of nourishment for algae which will develop at an exaggerated level and eventually suffocate these ecosystems.
Impoverishment of biodiversity and soils
The artificial enrichment of soils prioritises the selection of weak plant species, consequently animals experience a significant loss of biodiversity. Mechanisation, excessive use and not letting land lie fallow increases the risk of impoverishment of the soil, which plays an irreplaceable role of an interface between ‘above’ and ‘below’, particularly with regard to the water cycle, crops, etc.
Never forget that it took millions of years for our environment to develop up to this point and we do not have the right to exhaust its patiently developed potential within a few short decades. There is no ‘magical’ formula to make it suddenly produce ten times more than what it cannot do ‘naturally’.
Future generations should also be fed...
To see the cartoon on fertilizers, click here
To see the game on fertilizers, click here
To do the quiz, click here
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