Chesapeake Bay nutrient imbalance must be addressed

The problem plaguing the Chesapeake Bay is widely known and
obvious, according to a crops and soils expert in Penn State’s
College of Agricultural Sciences. But after decades of trying to
save the famous estuary by spending billions of dollars on
pollution-control measures, we have made a lot of progress but
still have a long way to go to solve the problem.

The bay watershed is out of balance, noted Doug Beegle,
Distinguished Professor of Agronomy. Simple to say, easy to see —
devilishly difficult to fix in today’s world. And while agriculture
is not entirely to blame — excess nutrients are also coming from
sewage-treatment plants and urban runoff — about half of the
problem involves farm fields and agricultural facilities.

Simply put, too many nutrients are brought into the Chesapeake
drainage in the form of grain from places like the Midwest to feed
cattle, pigs and poultry in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
The animals convert only about a quarter of the nutrients in the
grain into meat, milk and eggs, and the remainder — in the form of
nitrogen and phosphorous in manure — doesn’t leave the

Some of the excess nitrogen and phosphorous in manure eventually
finds its way to rivers such as the Susquehanna, and ultimately
ends up in the bay. There, the nutrients fuel explosive blooms of
algae that, when alive, prevent sunlight from reaching the bay’s
bottom, and when dead and decaying, absorb virtually all oxygen
available in the water.

As a result, huge ecological dead zones develop in the
Chesapeake each summer, making about a third of the 210-mile-long
estuary, the country’s largest, uninhabitable for living creatures.
Nutrient pollution from agriculture is one of the contributors to a
dramatic decline in the bay’s celebrated oyster fishery and loss of
the once-vast beds of eelgrass the Chesapeake’s ecosystem depends

In an ideal world, Beegle pointed out, the manure would be
returned to where the crops were grown, transported out of the
Chesapeake watershed. “But it’s hard to see how that could ever
happen practically,” he said. “It may sound simplistic and perhaps
silly, but honestly, that is the kind of thing that needs to

The imbalance is immense. A recent summary compiled by the
Mid-Atlantic Water Program reports that Pennsylvania alone is more
than 50 million pounds in excess of crop phosphorous needs. The
problem is systemic, Beegle noted. “It results from the way
agriculture is organized and goes back to the period right after
World War II when people in the Midwest discovered they could grow
grain using fertilizer cheaply and sell it to folks in the East for
animal agriculture for a nice profit.”

Farmers in Pennsylvania and the East who produce animals for
food buy grain so economically that they don’t need a lot of land.
“You might have nutrients from a 1,000-acre grain farm in Iowa,”
explains Beegle, “ending up on a 100-acre animal farm in Lancaster
County, and this is driven by an economic advantage both producers

“Historically the farmer who is buying the grain and feeding his
animals sees only the cost of spreading manure on his land. The
environmental costs of that excess is not borne by anyone, and the
whole system has evolved so that the environment is bearing that
cost. The real issue now is, if it is unacceptable for the
environment to bear that cost, who is going to pay?”

Farmers within the bay watershed have become much better at
limiting pollution from their animals — incorporating
best-management practices into their operations, such as no-till
planting to reduce soil loss and erosion, using cover crops in
their rotations, observing proper application rates when spreading
manure on fields, reducing runoff from barnyards, erecting
stream-bank fencing and planting riparian buffers.

“Farmers have made great strides, no question, and as new
technologies such as manure injection catch on, they will do even
better,” Beegle said. “But it’s not enough. The bottom line is the
nutrient imbalance continues. We have done a lot with nutrient
management, and we will do even more, but we can’t simply manage
our way out of this situation given the large excess in the

Complicating the bay’s excess-nutrient problem is that it is
closely tied to food prices. Because the cost of dealing with the
nutrient imbalance is not being paid, prices for meat and dairy
products produced in the Chesapeake watershed can stay low and be
competitive. But if the estuary is to be saved, the cost of
environmental stewardship must be covered.

“Food consumers are benefitting from the current situation, but
now somebody has to pay if we are going to solve the bay problem,”
he said. “Will people pay higher food prices to benefit the bay, or
will they choose to buy food cheaper from other places? Should
government and taxpayers pay? Or, should animal agriculture be
curtailed in the bay watershed? Can this be addressed through the
Farm Bill and national food policy? There are tough choices to be

Farmers in the Chesapeake watershed are competing in a global
market, and if they have to pay the full costs of environmental
stewardship, then they can’t compete, Beegle contends. “The
American people must realize the benefits of having a secure food
supply and of having a viable agriculture in the bay watershed,” he
said. “The question is, how can we get these costs internalized
into the global market place so that society is willing to pay the
real costs of producing food in a sustainable way?  

This question currently focuses on the Chesapeake Bay but
ultimately affects food and environmental policy globally,
according to Beegle.

“Farmers in the Chesapeake basin want to do the right thing for
the bay and the environment, but we have to figure out how to give
them the wherewithal to do it,” he said. “All of us who live in the
bay watershed and enjoy the beauty and the bounty of the watershed
must have the courage to face this issue realistically.”


Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem

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