NAPLES — William Mitsch calls fertilizer the opiate of agriculture.
It’s an addiction he wants to break, and he’s got a solution that already has Midwest farmers knocking at his door.
Mitsch is a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and reportedly the nation’s first successful wetland engineer.
He spoke to a standing room only crowd Thursday at the university’s Kapnick Center in Naples. It was the opening lecture for the seventh annual Moonlight on the Marsh lecture series.
An educator and researcher, Mitsch kept true believers in environmental repair engaged with a little call and response.
“What does red tide consume?” he asked.
“Nitrates!” people in the audience answered.
Mitsch started with unpublished scientific findings that he stopped just short of calling a smoking gun.
“You guys ready for the smoking gun?” he teased, before falling back on scientific prudence. “I don’t have a smoking gun. I have data that is provocative.”
That data, updated just a few days ago, allows Mitsch to rank nitrogen fertilizer as the primary feed for red tide algae in the Gulf of Mexico.
The results are studies of rare isotopes of nitrogen from water samples. The results show that nitrogen fertilizer ranks above septic waste, ammonium fertilizer, and nitrates in the air as far as red tide is concerned.
Red tide is called a naturally occurring salt water algae, but scientists increasingly acknowledge human development is making it worse.
Mitsch’s assertion contradicts research sponsored by the Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory that was published back in 2014. Using water samples from 2007-2009, Mote also studied isotopes of nitrogen.
But Mote’s research specifically stated there was no smoking gun, that red tide likes all forms of nitrogen.
Mitsch made other assertions in his lecture, however, that dovetailed with another outspoken Florida scientist, Larry Brand of University of Miami.
Both Mitsch and Brand predict failure of the $1.6 billion reservoirs planned south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir is supposed to prevent crippling outbreaks of blue-green algae by sequestering the algae instead of releasing it to the east and west coasts of Florida. The fresh water blue-green algae is believed to feed red tide at the point where the two meet.
Both scientists believe a holding pond without adequate surrounding wetlands cannot process the amount of algae that builds up each year in Lake Okeechobee.
Mitsch blamed Southwest Florida Water Management District and its south Florida counterpart for failing to provide enough engineered wetlands near the big lake.
Environmentalists have also blamed Florida’s sugar-growing industry for failing to sell back its land to the public, to be converted to wetlands.
U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy Sanchez disagreed with blaming sugar farmers.
“Farmers south of the lake have provided more than 120,000 acres of formerly productive farmland, more than any other group anywhere,” she told the Sun, referring to land sales going back 20 years. “For anyone to say that farmers, in particular sugar cane farmers have not given up land is not looking at the facts.”
Mitsch praised the state scientists for their skill in building wetlands, but said they need to show off that skill more, to the tune of 14 times more wetlands than currently planned.
“We need to hold their feet to the fire on that issue.”
His presentation ended with a dramatic proposal that would place farmers at the center of an environmental overhaul. The plan, he said, could not only clean water by removing nitrogen and phosphorus, but slow climate change by storing carbon.
Agriculture could function with no fertilizer at all, he said, if fields are segmented into sections that constantly cycle between growing commercial crops, and growing wetlands. Wetlands store the algae-causing nitrogen and phosphorus, releasing it as fertilizer during the crop cycle. Mitsch just happens to have the kits engineered to turn your fields into a wetland, and back again to growing commercial crops.
Can farmers make money this way? That depends on whether government helps fund the system, he said.
“The federal government doesn’t know about this. The federal government is going to say, ‘This isn’t what we do.’ Well, the federal government has to wake up,” he said.
After the lecture, Lindsay and Karen Geoffrey, snowbirds from Canada, said they were inspired, but wished the audience was more diverse.
“It’s just too bad there are no politicians here,” Lindsay Geoffrey said.