Clean Technology

Sustainable Farming: How Next-Generation Fertilizers Can Help Preserve Waterbodies


Protecting global waterbodies has only become more critical with time, heightening the need for sustainable farming practices. This is especially true in light of increasing global food demands, which further drive agriculture’s addiction-like dependence on commercial fertilizers. From those fields emerge streams of chemical runoff that drain into surrounding water bodies and affect the local communities that depend on them—some more than ever, thanks to increasing water scarcity.

Fertilization practices hold a key position along the path to agriculture and environmental sustainability. Further, they create ample opportunities for investors to make an impact on the climate as fertilization innovators work to preserve crop yield without producing harmful runoff.

How Runoff Reaches Waterbodies

The United States alone dedicates more than 330 million acres of agricultural land to keeping the domestic supply chain running. Those acres represent not only space but business—farmers rely on predictable crop yields to ensure viability and profitability. This is where commercial fertilizers come in.

Commercial fertilizers add nutrients to agricultural soil, encouraging predictable and robust crop yield. However, when these fertilizers are applied too close to rainfall or to underutilized areas with no crops to absorb the nutrients, the chemical mix can then travel with the rain into nearby waterbodies. The EPA cites this nonpoint source pollution (NPS) as the leading pollutant in lakes and streams. For example, farms are responsible for 95% of runoff in Lake Champlain, which borders New York, Vermont, and Canada.

Both decreasing NPS in farm runoff and promoting sustainable farming practices hinge on changing the fertilizers that power the world’s food supply.

How Runoff Impacts Aquatic Life

Once introduced to bodies of water, commercial fertilizer ingredients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia have a critical impact on the ecosystem. These chemicals can stimulate the growth of microorganisms that suck oxygen from the water. Eventually, the water may no longer be able to support much of its aquatic life. The resulting carcasses lower the water quality even further and invite other, less desirable organisms to multiply.

How Runoff Impacts the Community

Fertilizer-contaminated farm runoff adversely affects all life surrounding adjacent waterbodies. In time, wildlife that depends on those waterbodies as a source of food and water will be forced to migrate or die off. Communities near the water may have to endure noxious smells as an unwelcome side effect of the accelerated life-death cycle. Well water and drinking water supplies can also become contaminated, threatening the larger community.

Innovators in Fertilizers for Sustainable Farming

Both decreasing NPS in farm runoff and promoting sustainable farming practices hinge on changing the fertilizers that power the world’s food supply. With this in mind, parts of the agriculture industry are rethinking which materials they use to develop the nutrient-rich soil necessary for maximum crop yield. Their efforts aim toward decreasing harmful nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) content.

Rethinking Fish Waste

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent a Cape Cod trout farm called Blue Stream Aquaculture into dire straits due to decreased demand and overpopulation, they rushed to find an alternative business plan. What ultimately saved the farm was not the fish but the waste the fish create, which can serve as a more environmentally friendly fertilizer. Blue Stream now creates specialty low-NPK fertilizers and soil conditioners called Fish Brew to lessen the danger of runoff.

Reformatting Manure

In addition to methane, cows generate tons of manure each year. This waste is often stored in “lagoons,” which can leak and send manure into water sources through farm runoff. Although manure is by no means new to farm fertilization, a new process developed by Cornell University can transform it into something far more environmentally friendly.

Through a process called pyrolysis, researchers heat bovine waste lagoons to temperatures of between 700 and 1200 degrees Fahrenheit in an oxygen-free environment. The result is a kind of charcoal called biochar which has no liquid but retains the nutrients that promote soil fertility when spread on crops; meanwhile, the substance also helps soil retain water when it is dry and enhances drainage during wet periods.

Decreasing Nut Waste

Pyrolysis also has a hand in transforming nut waste into sustainable agriculture solutions. California-based company Corgin Solutions uses pyrolysis on almond shells to create nutrient-rich biochar that they then sell back to almond farmers to feed future crops. This biochar improves air quality as well, as it saves nut farmers from having to follow the generations-old practice of burning the almond shells.

Considerations for ESG and Impact Investors

Sustainable farming and protecting waterbodies are both long-standing concerns for ESG and Impact investors. While examining investments for a portfolio—especially those with an agricultural focus—weigh the following considerations.

  • Fertilization methods. How do agricultural-dependent companies fertilize their crops and mandate fertilization standards for their suppliers?
  • Sustainable practices. How are companies innovating away from harmful conventional fertilizers and supporting sustainable farming through next-generation fertilization techniques?
  • Preservation initiatives. How have companies demonstrated an ecological commitment to preserving bodies of water in their own operations and with suppliers?
  • First-movers. When considering impact investments, how can early-stage investment help a company have a wider positive ecological impact on sustainable farming practices and waterbody preservation?

Sustainable farming concerns more than just what goes in the soil. It is also about what stays in the soil and what does not. Armed with emerging fertilizer technologies, farmers have new options to help keep crop yields high and runoff low. The ultimate winners in the next-generation fertilizer race go well beyond the innovating companies, however. They spread across every facet of the environment, from crops to streams to wildlife to communities everywhere.

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