OABA President and CEO Chris Henney Featured in Feedstuffs Article: Algae Bloom Turns Focus to Nutrient Use
By Andy Vance, Feedstuffs
Water quality issues related to agricultural nutrient management are nothing new.
A record-breaking algal bloom in Lake Erie, however, has agricultural interests in the eastern Corn Belt working to implement a private-sector solution rather than face additional regulatory scrutiny.
Calling it the largest harmful algae bloom in the lake's history, researchers at the University of Michigan said the 2011 incident was caused by a confluence of farming practices and weather conditions that are likely to become more common. The bloom covered some 2,000 square miles, more than three times larger than any previously observed algal bloom.
"This event was caused by a complex combination of factors," said Michigan atmospheric scientist Allison Steiner, co-author of a study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We tried to think about this problem in a much more cross-disciplinary way than I think other people have thought about it before."
Steiner and colleagues from eight other institutions explored factors that contributed to the bloom and analyzed the likelihood that future blooms will occur. One such factor was intense spring rainstorms that the researchers concluded are part of a "long-term trend" for the region that is projected to worsen due to climate change.
Those rainstorms led to a number of runoff events, ultimately resulting in record levels of dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) in Lake Erie. High phosphorus levels fuel rampant algae growth, such as the 2011 bloom.
Perhaps coming as a surprise, the researchers said part of the blame for the excessive phosphorus levels rests with an increasingly popular conservation practice: no-till farming.
While no-till cropping reduces soil erosion, the University of Michigan analysis said the practice leaves high levels of phosphorous fertilizers in the upper surface soil, where heavy rainstorms can wash it into waterways that ultimately feed into the western Lake Erie Basin.
Trends toward autumn fertilizer application and broadcast application of fertilizers were also cited as contributing to the DRP issue. The paper's authors said the need for phosphorus fertilizers isn't likely to abate anytime soon due to record corn production.
"Corn is the crop on which phosphate-based fertilizer is most heavily applied," Michigan environmental economics professor Michael Moore said. "So, the intensification of corn production is a problem, and part of the solution would be to rethink this emphasis on corn production for biofuels."
However, agricultural retailers and commodity organizations said an improved focus on stewardship of phosphorus and other important crop nutrients will lead to an improvement of the DRP situation in Lake Erie and other bodies of water affected by nutrient runoff issues.
An advisory committee of experts from Indiana, Michigan and Ohio has developed a draft standard for a voluntary nutrient stewardship certification program for nutrient service providers.
The draft program is intended to encourage nutrient providers to adopt the "four Rs" of nutrient stewardship: using the Right source of nutrients at the Right rate and Right time and in the Right place. The 4R system, as it's known, provides a science-based framework for nutrient application and management by focusing on the site-specific nutrient needs of each farm.
"A lot of very knowledgeable experts on these task forces are still discussing the best practices to keep phosphorus out of the water and on the fields, because there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach," explained Chris Henney, president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Agribusiness Association, one of the organizations working on the draft standard. "If ag retailers are given the opportunity, coupled with accurate information and the right tools, they'll be able to voluntarily implement practices that keep phosphorus on fields and out of the water. We all want clean water and a healthy ecosystem."
Agricultural groups are working with The Nature Conservancy, a leading environmental and conservation organization, to facilitate the development of the third-party certification standard.
Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, the conservancy's project manager for the western Lake Erie basin, said the draft standard also includes an educational component to ensure that new practices related to nutrient stewardship are adopted by nutrient retailers, applicators and their farmer customers.
While the advisory committee is working quickly to develop and implement the certification program, the scale is tipping toward the likelihood of additional regulations on nutrient management, with discussions over possible legislation already percolating in Ohio.
"We don't have a lot of time, to be perfectly honest," Henney said. "We had the benefit last year of having a very dry summer, which meant no algal bloom, or a very small one, but we're not going to pretend that the lack of rain events was the answer to the problem. It's a balancing act, because the legislators and regulators aren't necessarily going to wait."
Leaders of the Ohio departments of agriculture and natural resources have circulated draft legislative language among agricultural groups and relevant stakeholders, and Henney said it is likely that a bill will be introduced at some point in the coming months.
Editor's Note: Listen to an interview with Vollmer-Sanders of The Nature Conservancy on the "Feedstuffs in Focus" podcast at www.Feedstuffs.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 8 edition of Feedstuffs, the weekly newspaper for agribusiness, and is reprinted with permission.