The argument over Maryland’s phosphorus management tool is a sad commentary on how the “profit now and damn the future” philosophy for special interests shapes politics and our society.

The convoluted tool, like the permissive “Phosphorus Index,” would reduce phosphorus pollution slightly, but not nearly as much as simple common sense.

According to Section IV in Virginia’s Nutrient Management Standards and Criteria “Phosphorus applications from inorganic nutrient sources shall not exceed crop nutrient needs over the crop rotation based on a soil test.” No science supports the need to apply phosphorus in excess of “crop nutrient needs” and doing so using conventional chemical fertilizer would be costly and stupid. But in both Maryland and Virginia, the disposal of organic phosphorus in poultry litter, sewage sludge and manure is not limited to “crop nutrient needs.” Permissive regulations like the PMT or “P Index” exist to sanction cheap waste disposal.

If phosphorus application rates were limited to “crop nutrient needs” (listed in Table 4-7 in Virginia’s regulation) lower application rates would prevail and more acreage would be needed to dispose of the waste. More importantly, supplemental nitrogen application would be necessary because lower disposal rates would rarely supply the nitrogen needs of the crop given the high levels of phosphorus commonly found in soils of agricultural land.

Advocates of continued cheap waste disposal wring their hands and sob that further regulation would make farming more expensive — for a small minority of farmers. But they selfishly ignore the real cost of pollution —an externality — to society. They ignore the conclusion of the Chesapeake Executive Council that a healthy Bay is worth “in excess of a trillion dollars to an economist,” far more than the value of the poultry industry.

All that is needed is a simple regulation, which would not affect crop yields, stating “Phosphorus applications shall not exceed crop nutrient needs (Table 4-7) over the crop rotation based on a soil test.” The waste can be used as biofuel or buried in landfills designed for methane recovery.

The phosphorus now being squandered and causing pollution can be recovered to delay the day when U.S. phosphate rock reserves are exhausted — within the lifetimes of children being born today.

Bay water quality will improve only when the efficiency of crop fertilization is significantly improved because agricultural practices cause most of the Bay’s nutrient pollution. The land application of poultry litter, sludge and manure is so inefficient that it now pollutes about as much as the discharge from wastewater treatment plants, where discharges have recently been reduced.

Society must decide whether current fertilization practices that sanction cheap waste disposal — and cheap food — continue to trump a healthier Bay.