Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Yoram Kapulnik headshot

Our Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizers Undermines the Planet’s Health: What Are the Alternatives?

By Yoram Kapulnik
farm with rows of crops on sunny day - reducing nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture

When you think about what contributes to climate change, you’re likely to conjure up images of gas-guzzling trucks, fast fashion and private jets. But other consumption habits we don’t think about greatly contribute to harming the Earth’s health, too.

Humans consume natural resources 1.75 times faster than the Earth’s biocapacity can regenerate, meaning we would need an additional planet that is three-quarters the size of Earth just to satisfy our current rate of consumption.

The agriculture sector in particular now depends on synthetic fertilizers, namely nitrogen-based fertilizers, to continue the pace of production and keep up with the ever-growing demand. 

As a cornerstone of modern agriculture, nitrogen fertilizers contributed to the rapid growth and high productivity of farming over the last century, while also raising alarm bells over their environmental impacts. While not as visually wrenching as a burning forest or displaced animals, our dependence on nitrogen-based fertilizers fuels the demise of vital planetary ecosystems and our own health. 

What makes nitrogen fertilizers harmful?

The global population hit 8 billion in November and will reach 9 billion by 2037, which will lead to an even sharper rise in consumption and strain our natural resources. 

But the solution to reducing food insecurity must not be to expand our unsustainable dependence on nitrogen-based fertilizers, such as urea. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers requires burning natural gas to extract liquid ammonia, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In excess, such fertilizers also damage the relative composition of plant species and soil fertility, disrupting the delicate balance in our ecosystems and polluting our waterways. On top of that, we’re talking acid rain, polluted drinking water, and oxygen depletion and “dead zones” in bodies of water, leading to serious harm to aquatic wildlife, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Of late, scientific research has pointed to the dangers of nitrate — a key component of nitrogen fertilizers — found in drinking water. A growing body of literature indicates the potential correlation between nitrate exposure in drinking water and health effects that include heart disease, nausea, headaches and abdominal cramps. Some studies even suggest an increased risk of cancer, particularly gastric cancer, associated with dietary nitrate exposure, but there is not yet a scientific consensus. 

Because the average person hasn’t thought about chemical compounds since their high-school environmental science class, it can be hard to visualize the damage. So let’s quantify this in simpler terms: Nitrous oxide (N2O), released when nitrogen is active in fertilizers, is 300 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The pollution caused by our annual use of nitrogen fertilizers globally equals that of 120 million automobiles

Just as entrepreneurs and lawmakers work tirelessly to facilitate a transition to electric vehicles, we must also work to restrain our use of nitrogen while searching for alternative agriculture solutions to achieve sustainable food sources.

What are the alternatives?

While nitrogen fertilizers obviously aren’t the only source of pollution disrupting our planet’s health, curbing their use and finding new solutions are vital to overcoming climate- and sustainability-related challenges. Fortunately, alternative approaches exist.

Biological nitrogen fixation offers an alternative to the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers that have dominated agriculture over the last half-century. In effect, this process enables plants to maximize their nitrogen use with the help of certain bacteria. This creates the potential for higher-quality yields without damaging soil, boosting sustainability and reducing pollution due to the reduction in nitrogen. 

This mechanism can be applied to crops like legumes, while other crops like peas, lentils, peanuts, and the increasingly popular soybean can be grown without the need for chemical fertilizers altogether. However, this efficiency exists only in plants from the legume family.

Other solutions may rely on natural biological processes where plants are able to utilize a larger proportion of the nitrogen fertilizers applied, leading to less contamination in the soil, water and air.

Harmful side effects from nitrogen can further be reduced by leveraging drip irrigation to feed the plants with water and nutrients, including nitrogen, directly to the roots — maximizing nitrogen use efficiency, saving water and eliminating the threat of chemical runoff entering waterways. Inside the industry, we refer to this process as “fertigation,” and together with biological nitrogen fixation, it can define a future era of sustainable and climate-friendly farming.  

With the impacts of climate change already being felt in many parts of the world, it’s essential for the new era of agriculture solutions to adapt to these changing environments. Biostimulants, which are substances or microorganisms applied to the crop, soil or seeds, help plants tolerate extreme climate conditions including lack of water, irrigation water salinity, and inhospitable temperatures. 

In small concentrations, biostimulants replace the need for full amounts of chemical fertilizers and support the plant’s vital processes, contributing to higher yields and better quality produce. PGPR (plant growth promoting rhizobacteria) represents just one effective example of a biostimulant that can be used to boost plant growth without harming the environment. 

These natural biological processes and mechanisms provide the agricultural industry with the tools to develop the long-term sustainability needed to secure food sources while protecting all aspects of the environment.

It’s long past due to seriously begin implementing alternative solutions that address food insecurity without harming the environment. Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, which has disrupted the global flow of synthetic fertilizers, offers an opportunity for the international community to consider alternatives, especially biostimulants. But simply considering it isn’t enough — urgent action must be taken to address the unfolding climate catastrophe. And natural alternatives to harmful synthetic nitrogen fertilizers offer the only true hope of securing food supplies with a smaller carbon footprint. 

Image credit: Dan Meyers/Unsplash

Yoram Kapulnik headshot

Prof. Yoram Kapulnik is the Executive Director of the U.S.-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD). He was the director-general of the Volcani Center in Israel (2011-2016) and prior to this position, he served as the head of numerous institutes within the Volcani Center. Born and raised in Israel, Prof. Kapulnik received his Ph.D in Soil Microbiology from the Hebrew University, and as a Fulbright Fellow completed his postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis. A former employee at Israel's Ministry of Agriculture, much of his early work focused on the study of plant-microorganism interactions in the plant’s roots, and their impact on crop productivity. Later, he concentrated on identification and utilization of natural products produced by numerous plant species and their health benefits to humans.

Read more stories by Yoram Kapulnik