Clickbait Science Won't Solve Environmental Challenges


April 12, 2019

In the era of 24-hour news and journalism in the era of social media, getting eyes and ears on your material is sometimes more important than getting the story right. We saw that this week in an NPR story, "Growing Corn Is A Major Contributor To Air Pollution, Study Finds," which lays the majority of the blame on the fertilizer industry.

The article summarizes a journal article ("Air-quality-related health damages of maize") that was published in Nature Sustainability on research based at the University of Minnesota. I kicked this over to Sally Flis, our Director of Agronomy, to take a closer look. As it turns out, NPR didn't get the story wrong, the research team didn't quite get the story right.

In addition to making some very loose connections between the number of people who allegedly die from air pollution caused from corn production, the study just skims the surface of how fertilizer best management practices can improve nitrogen emissions.

The study says "reductions of 16% to 88% can be achieved by the use of precision agriculture, as well as optimum fertilizer types and applications methods." However, they don't take into consideration what technologies are currently being used and what impact they might already be having. According to Sally:

  • The 4R Framework recommends selection of the right source, right rate, right time, and right place, and includes precision ag practices and enhanced efficiency fertilizer products. Enhanced efficiency fertilizer products, like those that have urease inhibitors and a combination of urease and nitrification inhibitors have been shown to decrease both NH3 and N2O losses from fertilizer applications.
  • Precision ag practices like, soil mapping with GPS and yield monitor data, provided by agricultural service providers have increased every year since 2008 (CropLife, April, 2018).
  • A 2016, Economic Research Service report based on USDA farm survey data, reported that 28 percent of corn acres in the United States have implemented variable rate application for nutrients.
  • 4R practices around timing of nitrogen application can also reduce nitrogen loss and improve nitrogen use efficiency. 
  • At the national level, the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers in corn increased from 8.5 percent in 2005 to 12.5 percent in 2010 (USDA's “Agricultural Conservation on Working Lands: Trends from 2004 to Present").

The authors also recommend that rewarding good practices implemented in the right locations could offer large benefits per tonne of corn produced. We'd just like to point out that the latest Farm Bill does just that. Thanks to TFI lobbying, USDA programs are available to help farmers implement 4R practices, precision ag, and the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers. And our 4R Advocate case studies demonstrate that more advanced 4R practices reduce the cost per acre for growing a crop while also reducing GHG emissions.

It may be flashy to make broad conclusions based on what a model tells you. But if we want to see real, lasting changes, we need recommendations based on what's happening on the ground.