Agriculture Industry Proactively Seeks Answers to Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

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August 6, 2014

By Tom Bruulsema, PhD
International Plant Nutrition Institute

The recent water advisory in Toledo has drawn attention to an issue - increasing frequency of algal blooms in Lake Erie. The agriculture retail industry has been paying close attention to this issue over the past several years. Representatives from the fertilizer and agricultural retailer industries are working with government agencies and environmental organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, to develop the 4R Certification Program for the Western Lake Erie Basin. The 4R Certification Program is a voluntary certification program for nutrient stewardship, addressed at minimizing the loading of phosphorus from agricultural cropland to Lake Erie. At the same time, these people and their organizations are active in educating crop advisers and ag-retailers - some of the key people from whom farmers get their advice - on sound principles for fertilizer application based on 4R Nutrient Stewardship: applying the right source of phosphorus at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. 

From Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, who works with the Nature Conservancy out of the Angola, Ind., office, here are a few updates on the 4R Certification Program: 

  1. Nutrient service providers throughout the Lake Erie watershed in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana have been signing up for the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification at a steady pace. 
  2. The program was announced in March and by the end of June, 49 service providers had applied for certification through the program.
  3.  The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) and the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), through the 4R Research Fund, are funding the evaluation of the 4R Certification Program. USDA-ARS (Dr. Kevin King) will lead the research in coordination with Heidelberg University, LimnoTech, the Ohio State University, the Nature Conservancy and IPNI over the next 5 years and will look at the 3 Ps of the 4Rs: People, Planet and Profit. 
  4. Three independent, third-party auditors have been trained and four retailers have completed their third-party audits. 

We are far from a full understanding of the many factors influencing the size and severity of algal blooms. We know weather plays a role and that there are other sources of phosphorus as well. Nevertheless the agricultural industry has recognized that it can play a role in minimizing risks for the future. The industry is contributing funds toward the monitoring of nutrients in Lake Erie tributaries, and is supporting research quantifying the efficacy of priority practice options for the management of crop nutrition. Changes to practices cannot be made overnight, but there are good examples of farmers and dealers working to adopt practices that help keep phosphorus in the soil for the crops while minimizing its loss to waterways. Educational articles and presentations on specific 4R practices relevant to the Lake Erie Watershed are available at IPNI's Lake Erie P Issues web site.