The rift in the nitrogen cycle is a major threat to the stability of the Earth System. This and subsequent articles will discuss how the natural cycle works and how it has been disrupted in the Anthropocene.
Out in the field, Jon supports a farmer-led approach. “The fields here are full of worms and the soil is healthy and aerobic. Mike’s really showing what can be done, and the government should go with that. Here on the farm, this is where the action is, and this is where the decisions should be made.”
In response to the discovery of nitrogen contamination, a group of city officials, staff from the local conservation district, farmers, members of the agribusiness community, concerned citizens and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture decided to go beyond finger pointing. Instead, they held a series of meetings in the early 2000s that focused on both securing clean drinking water and ensuring a strong agricultural economy, and that were rooted in the context of local conditions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls nutrient pollution the “single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.” Rising concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, the agency reports, are a significant threat to human health, ecosystems, and local economies.
Nitrogen is absolutely crucial to life — an indispensable ingredient of DNA, proteins and essentially all living tissue — yet it also can choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems, destroy trees and sicken people when it shows up in excess at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong form.