Farm being fertilised

New tool could help cut fertiliser pollution from farming

One of the leading causes of higher crop yields in recent decades is the large-scale usage of nitrate and phosphate-based fertilisers on farms.

Phosphates and nitrates act like an accelerant for crop growth, giving plants the building blocks they need to grow at a pace which allows farmers to grow high yielding crops, year after year. However, the fertilisers which go into our soil don’t always end up where they ought to.

Some of our crop fertilisers seep into groundwater and ultimately into water courses, doing lasting damage to the local environment. But help is at hand, with a new tool which could help farmers target specific plots of land, to minimise the risk of fertiliser pollution.

Algae clogs up waterways

When used properly, nitrates and phosphates accelerate growth in crops. However, if they are ploughed into the soil in excessive quantities, these fertilisers run off into our groundwater, allowing them to escape into streams, rivers and other waterways. The outcome can be disastrous for the environment.

The fertilisers cause a process called eutrophication, whereby high concentrations of fertilisers in water cause large algal blooms to grow. The algae covers the surface, choking off any plants that grow beneath the waterline. The algae eventually dies, before decaying in the water, reducing the oxygen levels over time. This suffocates more aquatic life, and turns vibrant streams into stagnant bodies of water, covered in slimy layers of algae.

In 2019, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published a document which revealed how 60 per cent of the UK’s landmass is being actively harmed by dangerously high levels of ammonia and nitrogen pollution, mostly caused by fertiliser run-off from farms.

New tool leads the way

Despite high levels of fertiliser pollution, a new tool could help farmers target plots of land more specifically, limiting the risk of future run-off. The Waste to Land (W2L) tool is computer-based and can assess the effect of implanting biosolids (fertilisers including manure) onto patches of land, helping farmers predict what the impact would be over time.

W2L helps generate maps and data to give farmers that much-needed lie of the land, to find the optimum areas ripe for fertiliser application. This helps prevent them from oversaturating areas that don’t need it, while ensuring that their plants receive as much nutrition as possible.

Advances in computer technology mean that, rather than just spraying fertilisers onto arable land in an indiscriminate way as in the days of old, allowing these chemicals to leech into our precious waterways, doing untold damage, farmers of the future can harvest their crops, knowing that the fertiliser had a less damaging impact on the wider environment.

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