Coastal algae blooms

Menace: Coastal algae blooms, such as this one in California, signal dangerously unbalanced water chemistry. (Photo by Peter J.S. Franks: Special to the Sun / August 12, 2014)

First of five articles

AASEN, Netherlands -- Leopold Hendrick admits a visitor through the locked doors of the world's first bureaucracy dedicated to tracking and taxing animal waste, a kind of manure IRS. The government administrator apologizes for the tight security: "We are not so popular. Some farmers broke in and tried to steal their dossiers."

Other nations should track plutonium so closely.

Dutch farmers must report to the nation's 340-employee Levy Bureau how much their 4.2 million cattle, 14 million pigs and 108 million chickens eat. They must inform the bureau of their farms' precise output, the meat and dairy products they ship away.

And especially, they must tell the bureau how much manure is left behind and what happens to each and every bit of it. Using bar-coded samples, computerized and cross-referenced to papers filed by haulers, the agency meticulously tracks the manure with a system worthy of high-level hazardous waste.

The Netherlands, with the highest concentration of livestock anywhere, might simply be a few years ahead of the rest of the world in confronting the planet's next big wave of pollution woes. The culprit is way too much nitrogen, which in this case seeps from animal manure.

Holland's extraordinary efforts to control nitrogen dramatize the unprecedented imbalance that humans have wrought in Earth's basic chemistry as a result of the past half-century of overfertilization.

Nitrogen is one of the most common elements. A vital building block of all plant and animal tissue, it is concentrated in all human sewage and animal manure, in widely applied crop fertilizers and even in polluted air - all the products of human endeavors.

Humans "have altered nitrogen more than any other element," says Stanford University ecologist Peter Vitousek.

In just the past few decades, industrialization, population growth and intensive use of chemical fertilizers have doubled the amount of nitrogen in circulation among living things.

By contrast, human changes to atmospheric carbon dioxide - blamed for global warming - represent an increase of no more than 10 percent in Earth's natural supply, Vitousek says.

And this sudden explosion of nitrogen has meant mounting worldwide environmental problems that have already had lethal effects - problems that promise to soon get worse and, some scientists predict, to reach the point of calamity.

Increasing signs that the chemical balance of the planet is out of whack, either wholly or partly from an oversupply of nitrogen, are already apparent in virtually every corner of the world:

  • Frequent, thick blooms of deadly algae in coastal areas, from Finnish beaches to Hong Kong harbors. During one such "red tide," fish farmers near the Chinese city took to the sea in their sampans in a desperate effort to literally turn back the toxic tide with their engines.

  • Historic and once-teeming fishing waters now devoid of oxygen and life. Fully one-third of the water in the Chesapeake Bay turns lifeless most summers. In the Black Sea, once Russia's Riviera, 5 million tons of fish have suffocated in less than two decades.

  • Drastic declines in underwater beds of sea grasses and critical coral reefs. In Australia, diver Ben Cropp bemoans the loss of "the viz" - the sparkling visibility - in parts of the Great Barrier Reef. A world away, Maryland biologist Mike Naylor maps the disappearance of grasses that nurture Chesapeake blue crabs.

  • Widespread damage to far-flung grasslands and forests. Even in remote areas, from Minnesota to the Netherlands, the rain is so laden with fertilizer that it overwhelms delicate native plants.

    The Netherlands: Bar-coded samples of manure to be tested for the Dutch Levy Bureau, which meticulously tracks what happens to animal waste generated in the country. (Sun photo by Larry Price)

    China: A peasant tends his crop in Guangxi province. Rising standard of living and heavy use of chemical fertilizer in the vast country affect Asia's and the world's nitrogen balance. (AP photo)

    Maryland: So grave is the loss of Chesapeake Bay grasses that schoolchildren are working to replant them. State biologist Mike Naylor shows what healthy celery grass should look like. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)