The Price of Plenty: The Environmental Cost of Fertilizers

Presentation by Sara Shipley Hiles, Bailey Becker, Joy Mazur, and Jocelyn Heimsoth

Learn about the environmental impacts of fertilizer from award-winning journalist and journalism educator Sara Shipley Hiles and University of Missouri School of Journalism students.

Published: November 14, 2023

Click here to watch the presentation on YouTube

Presentation by Sara Shipley Hiles, Bailey Becker, Joy Mazur, and Jocelyn Heimsoth

Hosted by Missouri River Relief

Matthew Backer spreads anhydrous ammonia onto a field on April 4 at Wise Bros Inc. in Kingdom City. Photo by Kate Cassady

Few inventions have changed the world like synthetic fertilizer. Without it, the planet’s population would be roughly half what it is today. Scientists learned to mine nutrients from the ground and pull chemicals from the air to boost food production and make farming more efficient.

But fertilizer production and use also threaten human and environmental health. The energy-intensive industry emits more heat-trapping gases than global aviation while leaving an unfair industrial burden on low-income communities. Meanwhile, less than half of fertilizer spread on fields is taken up by plants. The rest pollutes air and water, contributing to climate change, toxic algae blooms and oxygen-depleted water where life is snuffed out.

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 the fertilizer industry from the ground up. Thank you to University of Missouri Professor and Executive Director of the Ag & Water Desk, Sara Shipley Hiles and her students Bailey Becker, Joy Mazur, and Jocelyn Heimsoth for sharing with us the findings of their report: The Price of Plenty.

Sara Shipley Hiles is an award-winning journalist and journalism educator with almost 30 years’ experience in the field. She specializes in environmental and investigative reporting and is a recognized journalism teacher and editor with a dozen years of teaching experience. She has won awards and recognition for teaching, feature writing, digital journalism and investigative reporting. Hiles also directs the Smith/Patterson Science Journalism Fellowship and Lecture Series and serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


Bailey Becker is currently pursuing a master’s in Journalism at the University of Missouri. Presently, she works as a graduate teaching assistant and is the editor of the American Iris Region 18 Bulletin. 


Joy Mazur is a graduate student at the MU School of Journalism with a Bachelor of Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science. She is especially interested in issues concerning environmental and medical policy.


Jocelyn Heimsoth is a senior at the University of Missouri studying journalism and environmental science. She currently works as an intern at the MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture. 

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The views and opinions expressed by our presenters do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of Missouri River Relief, the Big Muddy Speaker Series or any of the partners that support this public forum. The Big Muddy Speaker Series believes that hearing diverse perspectives is a crucial building block for an informed public.


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