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Exploring the Downsides: The Key Disadvantages of Urea Fertilizer in Agriculture


Urea fertilizer is a key component of every modern industrial agricultural system because of its very high nitrogen content. Nitrogen, along with carbon and oxygen, is the primary constituent of our chemical formula for urea. It is one of the most concentrated nitrogenous fertilizers in agriculture, widely spread to maximise agricultural productivity and feed the world.

Yet as a modern miracle of fertilizer technology, urea’s downsides – especially from a sustainability perspective – need to be clearly assessed and understood. Its widespread use can contribute to a number of environmental and operational concerns that could undermine the ecological sustainability of agricultural systems in the long term. This is the view of the soil scientist and sustainability specialist Dr Emily Foster.

She notes the paradoxical nature of urea: Urea is great at meeting agricultural needs in the short term, but we have to be careful of its impacts on the long term, such as to soil health and the environment.Understanding urea’s downsides is a vital step in developing more sustainable agricultural practices that balance the need to feed the planet’s growing population with the need to maintain the ecological health of soils.

Environmental Impact of Urea Fertilizer

With the proliferation of agriculture with urea fertilizer, the environmental problems associated with it have also emerged. It has a serious influence on water Qulaity, air Qulaity and soil’s health.

Nitrogen Runoff and Water Pollution: One the most serious environmental problems concerning urea fertilizer is nitrogen run off. When urea fertilizer is applied to the field, not all the urea will be absorbed by the plants. Excess nitrogen leached into the water runoff by rain or irrigation can contaminate water resources. Due to run off, rivers, lakes and coastal areas can become polluted with nutrients which causes eutrophication in those specific areas.

Eutrophication is the process in which too much nitrogen from urea fertilizers make water too rich, causing excessive growth of algae and aquatic plants. These excesses can deplete the amount of oxygen in the water, causing a significant drop in oxygen levels of the water and hindering the growth of aquatic life forms within these bodies of water. According to Dr Laura Chen, a marine biologist, ‘the impact of nitrogen runoff from agricultural lands can devastate aquatic ecosystems and create dead zones, where most marine life cannot survive.’

Urea volatilisation and air quality: urea can be a major form of fertilizer  However, in arid regions, nitrogen in urea converts to ammonia gas, which escapes to the atmosphere before it can benefit crops. This increases the amount of nitrogen lost to air before it finds a useful crop application. It also contributes to air pollution. Ammonia emissions convert to particulate matter that poses a respiratory health hazard for humans and contributes to the formation of smog. ‘Ammonia from agricultural sources is a significant and important contributor to air quality issues,’ said Michael Tan, an atmospheric scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Particularly, in rural and agricultural regions.

Further complicating its environmental footprint is urea’s chemistry in soil, which undergoes a slow hydrolysis to form bicarbonate. Bicarbonate is a weak acid and can impart a persistent acidification to the soil leading to nutrient deficiencies and reduced crop productions over time. Soil acidity will also impact the ‘good’ organisms in the soil that help maintain nutrient inputs and outputs. ‘The acidifying effects have clear detrimental effects on soil health, and ultimately reduce the fertility of soils,’ says Foster, ‘to remediate this soil acidification requires the application of lime or other soil amendments to maintain crop productivity.’

It’s been vital to understand these environmental impacts of urea fertilizer so responsible use can be managed better. Improved management practices and better alternatives will help the agricultural industry overcome the harmful impacts of urea on the environment.

urea fertilizer
urea fertilizer

Economic and Operational Challenges

The sustainability of urea fertilizer use is a complex issue both economically and environmentally, which might affect the productivity of fields and gaseous emissions.

Economic Drawbacks:

With urea fertilizer prices notoriously volatile, depending on movements in global commodities markets and natural gas prices (a primary input of urea), budgeting and still planning are almost impossible for farmers. ‘Usually synthetic inputs like urea are good things,’ says Robert Harrison, an agricultural economist, ‘but just the dependency, itself, can expose farmers to financial risk, and it can increase the cost of food production, ultimately probably decreasing those profit margins.’

Dependency on Synthetic Inputs:

Reliance on synthetic nitrogen through heavy urea fertilizer use also poses long-term sustainability questions. Over time, crops using synthetic nitrogen absorb nutrients in such narrow patterns that other soil nutrients can become imbalanced. Farming might then become reliant on continual purchases of synthetic nutrients such as potash, rather than creating a productive cycle with locally adapted plants. More worryingly, synthetic nitrogen use depletes soil organic matter in some cases, decreasing its fertility. ‘While chemical fertilisers such as urea can give yields a temporary boost, over-reliance can lock farmers into needing more inputs to maintain yields,’ explains Harrison. ‘And, ultimately, this is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable.’

Operational Challenges:

The practical application of urea fertilizer can also help and, consequently, losses due to volatilisation or leaching can be minimised. For instance, if the farmer applies urea too soon before a rain event the nitrogen will be washed out and, if the application is made in hot and windy conditions it can increase the volatilisation rate. As Dr Emily Foster notes: ‘The correct timing and method of application of urea should be executed as it helps the farmers utilise all of their fertilizer. Farmers need to consider the weather, soil, crop growth patterns etc. while applying the urea to optimise its utilisation.’

These economic and operational challenges call for the thoughtful application of urea fertilizer combined with effective management practices and the search for alternative nutrient sources that lessen dependency and promote a more sustainable future.


Alternatives to Urea Fertilizer

The search for less environmentally damaging alternatives to urea fertilizer, which may also be cheaper, could thus have an important role to play in sustainable agriculture, and in finding its way around some of the disadvantages commonly associated with urea use: pollution of the ground and surface water, and soil health.

Bio-based Fertilizers:

Another promising option is the use of bio-based fertilizers like biochar, compost and animal manures, which supply nutrients and improve soil structure, water-holding capacity and soil-biotic activity. ‘Bio-based fertilizers help us reduce dependency on synthetic inputs while gradually building soil organic matter that better sustains long-term soil health and fertility,’ says Karen Lopez, a soil health expert at Purdue University in Indiana.

Controlled-Release Fertilizers:

Another promising solution is controlled-release fertilizers. These formulations are coated with a polymer film that tends to degrade over time, slowly releasing the nitrogen and thus providing it at the same pace that the plants’ roots absorb it. This way, nutrient losses through leaching and volatilisation can be reduced to a minimum, and fertilisation does not destroy the environment but becomes an environment-friendly measure. ‘Controlled-release technologies can minimise environmental contamination, raising the potential of the system by increasing nutrient-use efficiency,’ says Dr Lopez.

Integrated Nutrient Management:

Another complementary strategy is integrating organic and inorganic sources through integrated nutrient management (INM). INM optimises the complementarity between different fertilizer types to optimise yields, while minimising the use of synthetic inputs such as urea. INM uses precise calculations and soil-testing to balance nutrient-sources to specific crop and soil-needs.

Legume-Based Crop Rotations:

This natural enhancement of soil nitrogen, called biological nitrogen fixation, is achieved by using legumes in crop rotations. Clovers, peas and beans can make a substantial contribution to the nitrogen needs of the crops to follow, sometimes reducing or eliminating the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. ‘The use of legumes in crop rotations is the most beautiful way of lowering chemical fertiliser use,’ Lopez said. ‘It helps reduce production costs, and at the same time builds healthy soil over time.

So, exploring these alternatives not only softens the blows of the negative effects of urea, but also contributes to broader objectives of increasing the sustainability of agriculture. Diversifying near-term fertilisation strategies can lead to environmental improvements, but may also improve the resilience and productivity of farming systems in the longer-term.

urea fertilizer
urea fertilizer


Now having looked at urea’s overarching dominance in modern agriculture, its environmental and economic impacts, along with the alternatives available, it is fair to say that, while urea continues to be a fundamental input in modern agriculture, it does so in the face of major issues that shouldn’t be ignored.

And urea’s main disadvantages – which include pollution of air, soil and water through nitrogen runoff and volatilisation; soil acidification; and its attendant economic risks of price volatility – demonstrate the necessity for appropriate management and adoption of alternative options. Secondary or contiguous grassland in the uplands of the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Photo by Jeff Foottit/WikipediaThey illustrate why people should adopt practices in which urea’s negative baggage is mitigated while its agricultural advantages are easily exploited.

Urea fertilizer can and should exist in an integrated approach to uptake, using controlled-release fertilizers, bio-based fertilizers and legume rotations to reduce the reliance on synthetic urea, enhance soils and decrease the environmental footprints. ‘An integrated approach to fertilisation that combines the efficiency of urea with the sustainability of organic and slow-release fertilisers can lead to a win-win outcome for farmers and the environment,’ says Lopez.

As the world moves towards ensuring sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture, urea will remain essential for meeting the nutrient needs of crops. It’s one of the most effective and most economical ways of adding nutrients to the soil and this has to continue. As agriculture’s nutrient need expands, the demand for fertilizers will also rise. With innovative research, and an understanding of environmental and economic limitations, urea can continue to be part of the sustainable green revolution without compromising the environment or threatening food security and economic livelihoods.

In conclusion, urea is crucial for the continuity of feeding the world. But the negative aspects of using predominantly inorganic fertilizers like urea call for a middle way in the use of fertilizers such that the world’s agricultural value chain can sustainably meet the growing demand while mitigating irreversible negative consequences.

Here are some academic references related:

  1. 6 Crucial Advantages and Disadvantages of Urea Fertilizer (46-0-0)” on FertilizerKnowledge.com discusses both the benefits and drawbacks of using urea as a fertilizer. It notes that while urea has a high nitrogen content beneficial for green leafy growth, it can also cause damage to plants if over-applied and is susceptible to nitrogen loss through volatilization. This source provides a detailed look at the operational challenges of using urea, including the careful balance needed to avoid harming plants.
  2. Urea Fertilizer- Advantages and Disadvantages on ScienceInfo.com offers a comprehensive overview of urea’s pros and cons in agricultural use. It mentions that urea is highly soluble and hygroscopic, which requires higher quality packaging and careful handling to prevent degradation and loss. The article also discusses how urea can lead to increased soil acidity and may release harmful pollutants during production, posing environmental risks.
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