Fertiliser run off from farmland is a waste of money. It’s a waste of resource that is bad for streams, rivers, lakes, the sea, and for the creatures that inhabit them. There are good reasons we should carefully look at our fertiliser use. Phosphate takes 10 to 15 million years to produce. But agricultural practices undervalue fertiliser given the wasted quantities that run off the land and into sensitive receiving environments. This causes pollution, eutrophication (excessive nutrients in a body of water), and the suffocation of water and life.
If we paid the full lifetime cost of fertiliser use (and waste), primary produce would be a lot more expensive. Cleaning up just eight New Zealand rivers and lakes is costing half a billion dollars. In addition to evident present problems, there will be a ‘load to come’ from ongoing agriculture and dairy intensification and run off. If we paid the current full cost required to prevent and address nutrient enrichment in receiving environments, we’d be paying for vegetated riparian margins and species rehabilitation and recovery.
In reality, local environmental and economic effects either remain unmitigated, or costs are socialised, with ratepayers, taxpayers and the environment carrying the burden of addressing nutrient enrichment. Communities, councils and the government all fund cleaning up rivers and planting streams to try to rectify the damage of land use practices undertaken for the benefit of a specific sector. Impacts of quick and easy fertiliser application for direct increases in production are externalised, and not included in that carton of milk, block of cheese or meat on the plate.
There are other costs of our dependence on fertiliser, too. Some of them are not so close to home. Nauru still bears indelible scars to its society, landscape and ecosystems from its supply of phosphate, which helped New Zealand and other agricultural economies grow.
In Western Sahara, 90,000 to 120,000 local Saharawis live in refugee camps, where they’ve been exiled for more than 40 years – victims of Moroccan occupation as fertiliser colonialism continues. Unfortunately, nine companies around the world continue to support the illegal occupation and human rights abuses in Western Sahara by Morocco in pursuit of cheap rock phosphate.
Polluted aquatic environments at home and oppressed people abroad are the costs of phosphate.