Technological and institutional lock-in and excessive synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use on North American grain and oilseed farms
This intervention examines commodity grain and oilseed farmers’ over reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in North America. Most grain and oilseed farmers apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizer at rates higher than necessary in order to ensure maximum yields. At the same time, high fertilizer application rates lead to increased farm input expenses and generate significant amounts of water pollution and excessive greenhouse gas emissions. A number of low-cost alternative approaches have been developed which can significantly reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer while maintaining farm profitability. But such practices have only seen limited adoption by Canadian and US farmers. This is despite significant production cost savings and environmental benefits. A number technological and institutional factors work in combination to lock farmers into production models requiring large amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. They include crop varieties bred to thrive in artificially high nitrogen soil conditions, conventional tillage practices, restrictive financial arrangements, largely unenforced water quality laws, and non-diverse marketing outlets. These technological and institutional lock-ins are significant barriers to the adoption of alternative crop production practices that are less reliant upon synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.