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too much nitrogen in our planet's ecosystem??

 
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I had been ignoring the Haber-Bosch process for years.  Ignore the problem, focus on solutions, try to move forward.

However, I realize I had been making an assumption, which was that nitrogen, once fixed, didn't stay fixed.  I assumed, since industrial farmers re-applied huge amounts of N fertilzer  each year that it was because the nitrogen got released back into the atmosphere--through poor handling of our human waste perhaps, I'm not sure quite what I thought.  

In fact, the only thing that releases the fixed nitrogen back into the atmosphere in any quantity, from what I can gather, is other microbes.  Fixed nitrogen stays fixed (solid).

Now, I'm realizing that it's a much bigger problem than I'd thought.  Having too much nitrogen in fixed, solid form cycling through our ecosystem in general.  Burning (cars, power plants) also release some in the form of partly-fixed NOx and other noxious, greenhouse-gas-property forms, and it seems this also gets into the nitrogen cycle, in a destructive way.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1247398/

This article is a good overview of the problem, albeit with some bias in my opinion.

In my garden I have kept looking at ways to keep nitrogen on the land.  This is still a good idea...better than putting my pee in the wastewater treatment plant, or in a river that would help algae blooms that then kill the water (de-oxygenation) and other imbalances.  But  I wasn't thinking about where that nitrogen came from originally...even though I eat "organic" as much as possible, the organic farms and gardens may use material that came from restaurants or lawns...that somewhere back in the process was haber-bosched out of the atmosphere (artificial fertilizer).  If you use blood for fertilizing on your organic farm, what did that animal eat? where did the nitrogen come from? it's almost unknowable.

(The Haber-Bosch process, vastly increasing production since the early 1900's, and continuing to escalate today) basically takes energy and turns it into bio-available (reactive) solid-form nitrogen.  It is a human intervention; it did not exist in nature in this way until we created it.  I've heard, and the article says, that approximately 80% of the nitrogen in humanity's bodies today was fixed by the Haber-Bosch process, instead of by microbes and occasional lightning strikes, the old way).

If I want to be responsible as a permaculturist to the whole planet, then I might think twice about planting more nitrogen-fixing crops.

It's a less obvious and less immediate issue than CO2 pollution, but, it's another responsibility.

Instead of planting more legumes and black locusts, maybe I should look for ways to take more nitrogen out of the cycle.  Ideally, I could go down to the bottom of a river and snag some of that extra nitrogen where it's causing imbalance and redirect that...but that's not viable to travel that far very often.  My nearby rivers (the Charles and the Mystic) don't appear to have any algal blooms; there is not much agriculture in MA State).  As far as what I should do on my own part of the land, putting haber-bosch nitrogen into the soil by way of my own body's outputs seems more appropriate than planting more nitrogen fixers, at least until humanity reaches a more balanced point in relationship to our ecosystem.  Taking compost from nearby flows can also be a way of contributing to net balance.

The other aspect of this question (and the one I started out asking myself) is, Does more fixed nitrogen allow for more carbon sequestration than before human intervention? the article cited says the jury is out; too much nitrogen in an ecosystem seemed to favor plants whose leaves decomposed more quickly, releasing their CO2 back into the atmosphere).

However, I can think of ways to put the nitrogen to use.  If you take that to the deserts and green the deserts, in theory you could be turning two problems into none: the deserts can capture more carbon than ever, and the fixed nitrogen no longer contributes to human food supply and population overbalancing.  

I couldn't find a post about this topic on permies yet, but I'm sure it's gotten discussed somewhere.  I'd love to see more conversation about this.  As the article mentions, CO2 gets all the focus, but the nitrogen- (or poop)-carrying capacity of the planet also needs to be examined.  Yes, nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere, we're not going to run out.  But we may make the planet uninhabitable for other forms and for ourselves.

There are two questions--where the fixed nitrogen is  on the planet, and how much total of the nitrogen is fixed vs. atmospheric.  

Thoughts?



 
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Nitrogen has been bandied about for years in the micro world, to date, no one has been able to actually show through experimental data that it is something to address with diligence, it may or may not come to pass.

The amount of energy required to gather up and move supposed deposits of Nitrogen compounds makes that scenario not a particularly good method, since you would burn fuels thus further adding to the Carbon foot print instead of reducing it.
If you have a good microbiome thriving in your soil, nature is already working to convert free carbon and free nitrogen into stable compounds (which by the way, once stabilized can be thought of as being inert since stable compounds are not going to break apart on their own).

The real problem is that every report about Nitrogen is from the chemist point of view which means that any thoughts about microorganisms doing their work has been cast aside in favor of raw chemical concentration data.
So, is there really some sort of nitrogen glut happening in non-conventional farming? probably not, but it is definitely going on in fields where "modern method Agriculture (mono crop with chemical additions to the soil) is practiced.
This is the land that really is in need of in depth study since this is where N,P&K are being added without consideration of a microbiome working in the soil, this is mostly because the farmers are wiping out their microbiome every time they run a disc or plow over their fields.

When we talk about the planet as a whole, the question can be asked, "Is this a process that can be dissected and looked at as a single entity or is it something that has to be looked at from the circle of life POV?
The jury is still out and until we do experiments designed to give the whole picture, we are not likely to come up with the viable answers.

Odds are that any nitrogen surplus is bound up, not available to any organism without the help of enzyme producing bacteria to break those stable electron bonds.
It puts Nitrogen in the same place as sequestered carbon when you start trying to do comparisons or extrapolate the numbers into available and not available amounts.
Then there is the question, Is nitrogen an element that helps hold heat in towards the planet and thus helping to increase the surface temperature in the same way we know CO2 does?

Fortunately today many more people are entering the discussion and pointing out discrepancies that have been created by the experimental methodologies being used for these studies.

Thanks for bringing this up Joshua, good questions and the discussions will be very interesting to read.

Redhawk
 
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From what I've gathered reading heaps of articles this year, the big problems are directly or indirectly linked to N fertilisers, such as urea, and the harm is in the dose. N fixers just don't put enough quantity or concentration to upset balances, and from a climate perspective the creation of NOx (especially N2O) is very much a function of the methods of conventional agriculture. As Kola Redhawk points out, if you have a healthy soil microbiome, things will take care of themselves.

Synthetic N overapplication creates the conditions for ammonification, denitrification and N2O production in soils. These processes are not something we want in our growing environments or our atmosphere. The conventional ag approach to N is like feeding someone a massive amount of junk food: simple carbs with no real nutritional value. The result is what looks like high productivity, but is just vegetative obesity, and those plants are not going to be better for us or our livestock to eat.

 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Phil, good post, don't forget that another issue is acidification of the soil the Urea or what ever nitrogen source is applied to.

I've had to rejuvenate over 10 thousand acres of farm lands because the farmer applied too much N and acidified the soils they were farming.
When that happens, the "normal" crops won't grow or produce very well. (acidification of those fields put the pH down to 3.4 and 3.7)

The Big Ag. chemical companies have really done everyone a major disservice with their poisons and fertilizers.
I recon it will take at least 20 years from today (if all the farmers were to instantly change tactics to at least organic methods).

Redhawk
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Thanks Dr. Redhawk and Phil,

This puts it in some perspective, and it's good to remember it isn't all a material-chemical process but a broader one.

I think the question boils down to, for me, in the city, using food scraps from nearby sources (and much of that nitrogen may have originated in a synthetic process some generations back, so hopefully it's reducing the need for further damage to be done) and my own body's outputs, vs. planting N-fixers.  If I am trying to err on the safe side of not to making more than my share of the amount of fixing of nitrogen, it makes sense to lean toward using the flows of food scraps local to me (i.e. within walking distance or biking.

I also gather that the role of n-fixers in a food forest is really at the start (the first five years or so), and after that N can be cycled through (via humans and animals) and the N-fixer trees chopped or shaded out.  I hadn't thought of this in terms of time.  If that's so, then the N-fixers I put in my landscape can be considered a transitional measure and not a permanent one.

Also, the idea that nitrogen can be inert in soil makes sense to me.  In some cases it acidifies soil or imbalances things, and can even make it impossible for anything to grow in huge overdoses, but I think burying some food scraps in "worm towns" is appropriate and may put it in deeper soil where it is more inert.

Overall, the problem seems more to be about distribution than about total quantity.  With CO2, we have a quantity limit--the gases are all going to spread out throughout our atmosphere.  Not much uneven distribution going on there.  With ground nitrogen (solid- or liquid-form nitrogen in the ground) it isn't going anywhere much.  Redistributing might make sense, but not returning it to gas form.  (If I lived at the bottom of a river with algae blooms then maybe I could help the overall balance by taking some of that nitrogen away or balancing it with sawdust or something...but trying to vaporize it would be going about it the hard way...off topic, what are algae's natural predators anyway? jellyfish?)
--
What I'm still foggy on, and the internet isn't making clear--where does the nitrogen go when you burn wood or plant matter?  some of it can make NOx, etc., at high temperatures (2600 F, if I recall), but mostly stuff burns cooler than that.  Where does that nitrogen go??  And what's off-gassing when ammonia stinks? Thanks!

 
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Great thread.  Thanks for starting it.  A couple of thoughts.

1.  It's a closed loop system.  Like carbon, it's not that there's too much nitrogen in the system (the greater planetary ecosystem), but rather, too much nitrogen (or carbon) in certain places within the system.  Where much of that carbon used to be locked-up in the ground, now it's floating in the atmosphere.  So it's not like we are creating more nitrogen within our planets atmosphere, but we've found ways to artificially take that nitrogen and concentrate it in places (the top 6 inches of soil throughout the midwest) where it never used to exist.

2.  I think there needs to be a distinction between synthetically created and intentionally applied nitrogen (as most farmers currently practice), as opposed to naturally fixed nitrogen as a result of plants and bacteria.  Perhaps someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but there is no danger of the Mississippi river system becoming saturated with too much nitrogen because people upstream planted millions of nitrogen fixing trees and legumes.  Currently, the nitrogen run-off that has created the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is directly attributed to synthetic fertilizers dumped on fields throughout the midwest.  No such phenomenon would happen if millions of honey locust trees were planted tomorrow.  The exact opposite would be true: the millions of acres of crop land would become a giant nitrogen sink (and carbon sink) as it was during the days before widespread cultivation destroyed that ecosystem.

3.  While the problems are massive (global warming/climate change, as well as ecologically killing nutrient run-off), the solutions are surprisingly simple.  Planting nitrogen fixing cover crops, animal integration to graze farmland, no-till cropping, multi-species cropping, and other strategies are increasingly being adopted by farmers, and these strategies immediately make a difference.  While farmers like Gabe Brown are currently in the minority, the wisdom of their farming practices is undeniable.  As farmers increasingly adapt to these natural strategies, the problems will go away.

4.  Further, while these solutions are surprisingly simple, that doesn't mean that they are ineffective or "settling" for minimized yields.  When farmers adapt to holistic soil management practices (like cover cropping, intensive grazing and using nitrogen fixing plants), their profits go UP, not down.  They quickly understand that this kind of agriculture is not about being sustainable, but being regenerative.  Every year the crops are stronger and the yield increases, while the soil gets better and better.  
 
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I am pretty sure we should plant more nitrogen fixing crops.

Ruminant livestock poo 85% of what they eat back out, so there is always a 15% defecit on nutrients per year. Grass will take x amount of NPK to grow, and my nutrient management plan shows my pastures are about 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre shy. I have to get that 50 pounds somewhere, or 100 pounds every 2 years, or 150 pounds every three years...well you get the idea.

I can buy Urea and get this, but I feel planting fields into 50% clover can get me tht 50 pounds per acre per year without doing a thing, just making a good choice on what to plant for a grass mix.
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Thanks for the replies.

I realize I want to post the question i had had before my original post--if we humans can deliberately fix nitrogen much faster than nature had by using haber-bosh AND if there is 80% nitrogen in our atmosphere AND a plant only needs a few percent nitrogen content to fix a much higher mass/percentage of carbon, then might the answer for carbon capture, transitionally (not pemanently but transitionally) to use haber-bosch--in other words use every tool we've got (haber bosch as well as nitrogen-foxing plants (microbes) and keeping our poop and yard waste from breaking down with the nitrogen getting lost)?

And where this question began was reading a claim that carbon farming (i think it was mob grazing) could sequester all the carbon the rest of humanity had released into the atmosphere. And if this is true, it would mean there is a grave danger of overshooting the mark, in theory.  That grasslands left to their own devices would have gradually sucked all the last bits of carbon out of the atmosphere, leaving the planet cooled and lifeless.  Obviously nature hasnt done that, some homeostasis has maintained for the past several millennia.

So it had me wonder if there was another factor, and the greater quantity of fixed vs. atmospheric nitrogen because of the extreme amount of haber-boschery weve done affecting the land as a whole seems like a major factor.

Can anyone explain or put a link to an overview of how all this fits together, what proportions of impact each of these human factors has had?

Does it make sense to put some amount of industrial, haber-bosch process into carbon sequestration as a trasitional tactic to keep the atmoshere's balance at this sensitive time?

Does have any importance to our thinking/understanding today to recognize that some percentage of the nitrogen in yard waste or food scraps or urine etc we scavenge for our landscapes originated through human intervention vs. nature's activities?

(I had assumed before studying permaculture that all human impact was negative,  unbalancing, but is the total amount of plant life possible on Earth greater thanks to our fixing so much more nitrogen? Did we, unwittingly,  partly do a good thing for all life? How "full" was Earth's land and seas with life before haber-bosch? What are the biggest factors that differentiate desert/minimally life-supporting land from maximally life-supporting land?  Thanks!
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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I neglected to add --

Haber-Bosch process involves releasing a lot of CO2--but then that fixed nitrogen is "reusable", so we come out ahead, right?

I read that corn captures more carbon in its chemical process than other plants--seemingly much more per acre than trees in their first few years--might growing corn in deserts with no palatability or transportation requirements limiting things allow for some carbon sequestration benefits,  as a transitional, stop-gap measure?
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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I'm learning what the proportion of the major elements is in a plant.  CHON is the major elements of life, we learned in high school, however it is not like a plant is about one quarter nitrogen.  It's more like 5-10% maximum:

"These three elements [Caron Oxygen and Hydrogen] constitute 90 to 95% of the dry matter content of most plants." -- Clemson.edu

Organic matter is heterogeneous and very complex. Generally, organic matter, in terms of weight, is:[6]

45–55% carbon
35–45% oxygen
3–5% hydrogen
1–4% nitrogen

-- wikipedia, "Organic Matter"


(BTW--there's also the question of bioavailability of the nitrogen--plant matter isn't immediately bioavailable, microbes have to finish the transition, in two phases  The last phase takes 1-3 weeks;  the first phase can take longer (I didn't see how long in the article).)



 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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157.3 million metric tons (t) -- haber-bosch process ammonia produced in 2010
451 million t of CO2 released -- haber-bosch process producing ammonia in 2010

So, if each of those 157 metric tons of nitrogen were 4% of a really really big tree, those 157 million / 4% = 3900 t of carbon they sequestered.  An eightfold increase over the amount of CO2 the haberbosching had released initially.

It seems from that angle as if the haber-bosch process ought to be contributing to a reduction of carbon in the atmosphere--whereas the ppm of carbon have been increasing.  Unless of course--and this is really my larger question--the carrying capacity of the earth for plant life has been reached or human activity has reduced it in net impact.  (Desertification, agribusinesses, clear-cutting?)

The missing piece is where that nitrogen goes--if we could handle our s--t (poop and pee) more constructively then perhaps that could help things a lot.

If we didn't overeat meat and have a lot of that nitrogen tied up in cows--and cycling through many more cows per acre per year than lived per acre per year in the past--we would have less of a problem.

If we didn't overflow nitrogen into oceans and cause massive algae blooms that then kill off local life, including plant-kingdom life I assume, disrupting effective carbon-capturing cycle ecosystems...

If we didn't have huge inefficient poop-processing plants that only generate a quarter of the energy needed to run them (even Bill Gates did better than that with the omniprocessor, it powers itself and generates some surplus electricity)...and releasing CO2 to compensate for the remaining 75% (Deer Island plant in Massachusetts).
 
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