Synthetic fertilisers have been in use for decades, and studies are still being conducted on their long-term effects on the environment. While the use of conventional fertilisers may result in short-term plant growth, these fertilisers are made up of harsh chemical compounds with high concentrations of nitrogen in salt form. The chemicals and salts can stay in the soil and contaminate groundwater.
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Ingredients in Synthetic Fertilizers
Many synthetic fertilisers are made up of chemical compounds containing nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. While these nutrients are needed for plants to grow, they often are found in very high concentrations in conventional fertilisers. A common synthetic fertiliser is ammonium nitrate, which is a nitrogen and ammonia compound. Many conventional fertilisers also are produced using petrochemicals and harmful chemicals such as cyanide.
Synthetic fertilisers often are very soluble in water. This means that as crops are watered by rain or irrigation, the fertilisers run off into nearby streams, rivers and lakes. While the chemicals in fertilisers may be good for plants, too much nitrogen or other chemicals can be bad for fish and other animals that live in the affected water. Chemicals such as nitrates and cyanide also can get into groundwater and contaminate it for humans.
Short Term Growth
Because synthetic fertilisers have higher concentrations of plant nutrients, they will result in short-term growth. While organic fertilisers release nitrogen over a long period of time, conventional chemical fertilisers release nitrogen very quickly, resulting in a burst of growth for crops. This quick release also means that more fertiliser will be needed again relatively soon, resulting in overuse of fertilisers.
Effects on Insects
Studies show that synthetic fertilisers can increase populations of insects that eat plants. Crops treated with ammonium nitrate, a common synthetic fertiliser, have increased numbers of insects laying eggs on plants. Some types of aphid also prefer to eat plants fertilised with conventional fertilisers, and organic fertilisers reduce aphid populations by providing minerals to the plants that the insects don't like to eat.
Long-Term Soil Effects
Many synthetic fertilisers are salts that contain other chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Crops use the nitrogen that is released from the fertilisers, and the salts in the fertilisers often are left behind in the soul. This process results in a salt build-up in the soil, which eventually will make the land unable to support plant life.
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- "The Truth About Organic Gardening: benefits, drawbacks, and the bottom line"; Jeff Gillman; 2008
- "Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences"; Varying responses of insect herbivores to altered plant chemistry under organic and conventional treatments; Joanna T. Staley, et al; March 2010
- U.S. Geological Survey; Water Science for Schools; Groundwater Quality; Howard Perlman; 2011
- "Periwinkle Environmental Education Part XII"; Harendra Chakhaiyar; 2010