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New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health

April 12, 2019

"The case for synthetic N as a climate stabilizer goes like this. Dousing farm fields with synthetic nitrogen makes plants grow bigger and faster. As plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the plant is harvested as crop, but the rest-the residue-stays in the field and ultimately becomes soil. In this way, some of the carbon gobbled up by those N-enhanced plants stays in the ground and out of the atmosphere. ... That logic has come under fierce challenge from a team of University of Illinois researchers. In two recent papers, they argue that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil's organic matter content. Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues ...