Information, Education, and the Media
One of the greatest barriers to ecological problem solving is obtaining information about ecological relationships and consequences and delivering the information to the relevant people. Improved information for nitrogen-fertilizing farmers would make the nitrogen fertilization rate closer to the efficient level (the right amount would be used for the highest possible profit). Perhaps this optimal level is less than the amount currently being used, because farmers’ information comes from fertilizer producers, who desperately need to maintain sales. Nationwide nitrogen reductions would then be accomplished at a profit for farm income, though at a loss for fertilizer producers. However, studies examining overfertilization have shown that farmers in fact might fertilize more with the benefits of more information. (UIUC, 1997) Precision agricultural proponents promise more efficient use of inputs due to precise information from computer modeling, automation, and global positioning, and they imply less pollution will result. A precision ag funding bill was passed recently by Congress. However, efficient use means attainment of the optimal economic benefits; efficient can mean less inputs or more! Since farm incomes are always tight and improved information is on the way, it is unlikely that voluntary reductions in fertilization are on the horizon. It is not good policy to devote time and resources meant to reduce nitrogen pollution to precision agriculture.
Ecological Education to Obtain Voluntary Reductions
Nitrogen pollution education is a different story. Education involves informing non-point source polluters that they are in fact polluters and that their actions have serious consequences downstream. The goal of non-point source education related to eutrophication is the voluntary/assisted implementation of Agricultural BMP’s. The new program to accomplish voluntary BMP’s is the Nationwide Farm*A*Syst program. Implementation of BMP’s has been successful in many smaller, local watersheds because the education efforts are feasible. The largest operation to date is the Chesapeake Bay movement that began in the 1970's. Unfortunately the watershed of the Gulf of Mexico is almost national in scope. The massive investments in education needed for a watershed of such size would require more than unpredictable voluntary implementation to cost effectively reduce eutrophication.
Role of the Media
The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is not a nationwide news story like genetically modified food. The words are complicated and do not invoke scary science fiction images in the minds of the public. Publications like Newsweek have run stories on the dead zone, but the really extensive coverage has been limited to the regions which are ill affected, namely Louisiana. The power of media would undoubtedly be useful. If the public knew and were concerned with the eutrophication of its waterways and estuaries, the media might create pressure on the agricultural industry to accomplish reductions voluntarily to preempt any restrictive legislation. The lack of media pressure is likely to encourage the agricultural industry to discredit concern, delay action, and fight legislation–because it can. Media coverage is essential to forcing companies to “voluntarily” pursue social goals over their own. For an example, see a description of how media helped eliminate the “terminator” seed program. Proponents of nitrogen restrictions will probably have the most success raising media consciousness in local forums, where concerns like water quality hit closest to home.