Funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative, The Price of Plenty teamed up student journalists from the University of Florida and the University of Missouri to report on fertilizer from the ground up. They reported from Florida’s “Bone Valley” where 8-million-pound earth movers strip-mine phosphate; from agrichemical plants along the Mississippi River; from farm fields and legislative hallways; from communities stuck next door to the industry; and from the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” where it threatens one of the world’s most productive fisheries.
Student journalists found that the industry wields outsized political power; that farmers have little incentive to use less; and that nutrient pollution persists despite exhaustive science linking fertilizer to toxic algae outbreaks and other problems. They also found that while government and industry research funding pours into fertilizer application and future markets such as hydrogen power and rare earth elements, there is a dearth of research on the human health risks associated with fertilizer production – from Florida’s reclaimed phosphate lands to Louisiana’s chemical plants.
They also found promising signs of action and change. An upswing in regenerative farming practices is helping to restore polluted waterways and fight climate change. Fenceline communities next door to the industry are becoming increasingly organized in pursuit of environmental justice. The student journalists also report on solutions that rethink food production and the industry’s waste. “If we can all put our heads together, then we can come up with solutions to make sure this does not exacerbate in the future or repeat itself,” said University of Florida soil and water science professor Jehangir Bhadha. “At the same time, the demand for producing food has gone up, so we are in a very tricky place. We have to be able to talk openly about these issues to be able to come up with solutions.”