Too Much of Anything Can Hurt You: Threats of Eutrophication in the USA

by KyleF on November 11, 2017 - 10:11pm

    Fertilizers are often used in agricultural settings to restore a soil’s nutrients for production of crops because the process of growing and removing plants from a field strips the soil of its nutrients. In July of this year, Tatiana Schlossberg, a writer for The New York Times, summarized how the overapplication of fertilizers in agricultural settings is giving rise to negative effects. When fertilizers are overapplied to fields, nutrients like nitrogen can leach into the groundwater or be swept into nearby water bodies due to runoff. An excess of nitrogen in watersheds, or even oceans, from agricultural runoff can cause oxygen loss within the water from algae blooms. The loss of oxygen combined with the algae themselves causes the water to become toxic which leads to loss of animal life in the water basin. This is an issue because as Schlossberg pointed out, even the modest projections of temperature and precipitation increases from climate change are predicted to cause eutrophication in watersheds on much larger scales from the overall increase in fertilizer runoff. Although Schlossberg did not explicitly state who was to blame, she heavily implied it was from the agricultural industry and the overapplication of fertilizers from farmers. She also described how eutrophication will have significant global impacts as much of the world relies on surface water which could likely become unpotable. It appears that the only recommendation the article gave to combat the issue was for workers in agriculture to incorporate runoff prevention strategies because of the projected rise in runoff and therefore, eutrophication.

     I believe this article did an excellent job of summarizing the often-unknown effect that the agricultural industry has on proximal water bodies. The effects that eutrophication has on the fauna in the water bodies is usually well described in mainstream literature, but the effects that eutrophication has on humans is often undersold. Schlossberg’s article did an great job of bringing the human aspect of eutrophication to light and highlighted how not only is it a present issue for the global community, but it could potentially be a major future one as well. However, another main, if not larger, cause of eutrophication is grey water from regular households, that contains excessive amounts of phosphorus. Phosphorus saturation can often lead to more severe eutrophication effects in aquatic environments than nitrogen does (Liu et al., 2012). Thus, I do not think that solely blaming farmers for eutrophication is constructive. Realizing the blame is not only on the farmers, but the communities themselves in regard to water pollution is an important step that society must take when addressing the issue. Because the issue can result from scales as small as a neighbourhood to as large as a country, a co-management approach to tackling and managing the issue would be helpful as no one group would truly be able to blame the other for the problem. A co-management approach would also allow farmers, community members, and policy makers to discuss and come up with ideas and policies that will be adaptive to many different kinds of scenarios that arise when dealing with eutrophication mitigation.



Liu, C., Kroeze, C., Hoekstra, A. and Gerbens-Leenes, W. (2012). Past and future trends in grey water footprints of anthropogenic nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to major world rivers. Ecological Indicators, 18, pp.42-49.

Schlossberg, T. (2017). Fertilizers, a Boon to Agriculture, Pose Growing Threat to U.S. Waterways. The New York Times.

About the author

Third year environmental resource management major at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.