The Moral Life of Corporations   /   Summer 2009   /    Essays

United States of Fertilizer: A Case Study of Corporations and Environmental Harm

Ted Steinberg

There is a feeding frenzy going on in the United States, and it has nothing to do with fast food or obesity. The feeding involved here is happening across the land—literally. It stems from one of the most American of obsessions: the quest for a perfect lawn.

In 2004, U.S. homeowners tending their lawns burned through nearly three mil- lion tons of fertilizer, all to grow one of the blandest “crops” around: grass. I use the word crop deliberately because, as it happens, that figure (three million tons) represents as much or more than the nutrients applied to some of the nation’s most important food crops, including wheat, soy, and cotton. Nor should we be surprised that in the supersized era of the roaring 1990s, people came to the totally misplaced conclusion that if a little fertilizer was good, then more was better. A 1998 study conducted in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area found that homeowners and even companies in the chemical application business were applying twice the amount of nutrients recom- mended by state agricultural extension services.1 How did this state of affairs come to be? Why are Americans overindulging in an orgy of fertilization when reputable agri- cultural science suggests that there is no need to do so?

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).