Eat This

Chemical Fertilizers: Is A Stay of Execution Justified?

Malawi

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for the NY Times

We’re so used here at the Rant to shunning chemical fertilizers that this excellent New York Times story about Malawi came as a bit of a shock.  The government seems to be ending starvation simply by subsidizing the cost of big bags of chemical fertilizers. 

Of course, I’d rather the agriculture minister were sending out big bags of Moo Doo instead.  The problem is that it takes a lot of organic matter to grow organically.  And if your soil is so depleted nothing is coming out of it….well, it seems to me that artificial nitrogen beats mass starvation. 

I only get to be haughty about my growing methods because I live in a nation that is already fat.

Posted by on December 3, 2007 at 6:18 am, in the category Eat This.
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21 responses to “Chemical Fertilizers: Is A Stay of Execution Justified?”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    You’re right: starvation is no fun. Still, artificial fertilizers are incredibly shortsighted. The kill the soil and everything in it, and they are a source of pollution in the air and the water, to say nothing of the energy it takes to make the fertilizers. the latest studies from the University of Illinois show that synthetic nitrogen depletes the vital carbon in the soil at a rapid rate at the same time it is creating excess carbon dioxide to pollute the atmosphere. Farmers are just pouring money down the drain by repeatedly dousing their fields with anhydrous ammonia.

    Any way you look at it, synthetics are not sustainable. The Chinese managed to feed themselves for thousands of years with organically-grown crops. Fertilizer included composted human waste. The latest example is Cuba. No, if you really want to help poor countries, show them how to farm intensively with soil-friendly compost they can make from the available resources.

  2. Jeff Gillman says:

    One of the best books that you’ll never hear about is Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil. It’s about the Haber Bosch reaction (how they make synthetic N fertilizers) and how these fertilizers have affected the world. I’m a strong proponent of organic fertilizers, however I believe that, with todays technology, it would be impossible to feed the world without synthetic nitrogen — the world’s population has grown too large to support with just organic fertilizers. The ironic thing here is that it’s the synthetic N that allowed the population to grow so large in the first place (well, that and antibiotics).

    It’s estimated that 1% of the worlds energy goes to running the Haber-Bosch reaction to make Nitrogen fertilizers (and explosives, but that’s a different story…). Interestingly (at least to me) is that the N for this reaction comes from the air. Unfortunately the power for the reaction usually comes from coal or nuclear power (or oil). It’s true that synthetics aren’t sustainable — and we have the technology to reduce their their use — but I don’t think that we can cut them out of the picture yet…

  3. chuck b. says:

    Hopefully they’re also learning to compost the part of the harvest they don’t eat themselves. The World Bank could subsidize subscriptions to BioCycle.

  4. Ed Bruske says:

    The great falacy of the “nitrogen has fed the world” argument is that far more land is being used to grow food than need be the case, it is killing the soil, leading to erosion, pollution of air and water and all needlessly–unless you are a shareholder in Monsanto or Archer-Daniels midland and love having your pockets lined by all the nitrogen being wasted in the world.

    The Great Big Lie is that we need nitrogen to feed the planet, which could not be further from the truth. Every study ever conducted has shown that more food could be grown on less land if we ended monocropping and adopted intensive, sustainable farming methods using organic compost to feed the soil.

  5. Jeff Gillman says:

    Nitrogen is the limiting factor for the growth of most crop plants. By adding more nitrogen to plants that can handle it we get a heavier yield — this is the basis of Norman Borlaug’s work for which he won the Nobel Prize. The amount of nitrogen available is the limiting factor to the growth of most crops nowadays — organic or not.

    Compost is very valuable to crop growth for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it generally provides nitrogen. The question then becomes, can we provide enough high quality compost (including manures, etc.) to farmland across the world to provide the required amount of nitrogen for optimal growth of crops. There have been studies conducted and they point to the same thing — no (I would point you to Smil’s book — he reviews these studies nicely).

    The earth grabs nitrogen from the air in a variety of ways — lightning strikes, bacteria in legumes, etc. Unfortunately nature can’t compete with science in terms of loading a site with nitrogen to optimize plant growth — not to say you can’t fertilize a small (or even a large) farm with it, but there just isn’t enough for the entire world.

    It’s true that using compost and polycultures produce better crops — no question — the problem is that you can’t produce enough compost to deliver enough nitrogen to the plants in the farms across the world to feed its current human population.

    No, I don’t own any agricultural or chemical company stock (at least that I know of — maybe a mutual fund somewhere…). I’ve spent a significant amount of time studying this question and, while I feel we can do much much better than we are doing, I don’t believe that with our current population we can completely forgo synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and hope to provide appropriate nutrition to the world.

  6. This is a great debate. My husband, who’s been covering energy issues for the last 5 years, keeps reminding me that cheap fossil fuels made our cushy civlization possible. Same deal with artificial nitrogen. You can want to move beyond it–and still respect what it’s accomplished.

  7. I don’t disagree, given some big reservations, with Michelle and Jeff. My thesis at Cal Poly was on nitrogen use efficiency in the school’s fields. As a rule of thumb for small grains in unimproved and unfertilized soils in temperate regions, an additional 1 kg/ha N added pays off in 10 kg/ha yield additional yield.

    However, N is protean stuff (yeah, yeah, it’s in protein, too). It moves dramatically in soil and water, exists in different forms, escapes into the atmosphere, infiltrates wells and ground water. You can’t just toss magic powder out of the sack and get those lovely yields.

    On this lovely wide-ranging blog, I’m not going to recite my thesis! Don’t worry! Suffice to consider:

    Over-fertilizing with nitrogen is a huge global problem. We’re experimenting on ourselves and the biosphere in ways none of us really understand. Roughly 60% of applied N is taken up by a (healthy “average” crop) and 40% lost, something I found in my own research (to my surprise). That 40% doesn’t just go away, it moves somewhere else as a pollutant or wasted resource.

    We’re gardeners, right? We _know_ you have to time N applications to when they will be taken up by actively growing plants (or use organic methods, or some expensive slow release product like Osmocote – tell you what, I was Peace Corps Togo for 3 years and I didn’t see a lot of Osmocote…).

    Spread at the wrong time, fertilizer means N (and $) down the drain, and pollution down the river…

    There’s a lot of non-fertilizer bag (commercial) N around, including in Malawi (and I’m not talking about the inert pool that forms 80% of our atmosphere). Some of that “fixed” N is in manure, including humanure. So, we’re asking Malawi to buy sacks of N fertilizer from DuPont, and then…well, do something else with their poop. But, on the N leger sheet, it’s all N ions, in the poop or the bag. At some point, we all will have to begin thinking ecologically and balancing such inputs and outputs.

    No, you are right, it isn’t as easy to spread manure on field crops as it is to spread bagged salt fertilizer (or spray aqua N or ammonia), and humanure has health risks. But, certainly it can be done, using rotations and paddocking. I don’t know for sure since my direct experience is in West Africa, a very very different place, but from my brief work in Swaziland I wonder if Malawi doesn’t also have a herding tradition for at least some of the cultures there.

    For us to arrive with magic bags of N fertilizer and announce that, well, we can save your children if you just farm (and consume products) like we do, if only you’ll throw out your “primitive” ideas…you get my drift…a bit arrogant of us, no?

    I found the farmers of Togo were extremely wise in the ways they knew and managed their land.

    I’m ranting, which is appropriate given this blog, but let me remind us all that one of the fatal flaws in Borlaug’s “green revolution” was lodging (falling over) and other predictable plant problems (weed growth, too) in response to excess N. His approach was based on plant breeding coupled with fertilization and other techniques. However, to get those lovely yields you needed to have close-to-ideal conditions. Anywhere, and especially the developing world, those conditions are a fantasy.

    A more promising and sustainable approach is that of Roland Bunch and World Neighbors. I highly recommend his book “Two Ears of Corn”.

    Rant, rant…

    Generally, I agree that N is not best managed through composting alone. Heavy applications of compost (or manure) can lead to N leaching and eutrification, too. However, it is worth remembering that the modern science of compost traces to Sir Albert Howard’s work in India, to address exactly the problem of hunger and need to increase yields (and waste disposal).

    My son needs homework help, so let me just say that I hope Malawi ties those bags of N to best management practices, including rotation, building soil organic matter (with composting for veggie production), cover cropping, split applications – all those good things.

    Meanwhile, I hear a bonobo beat a bunch of college students on a measure of intelligence. Ha! We think we are such a smart species, anyway! The chimp apparently was able to see patterns quicker than humans. With N, that’s what I ended up astonished by, the never ending patterns, the rush of N through life and water, air and stone, a step in Shiva’s infinite dance. N is fundamental, for gardens and for life, but we may end up disappointed if we seek to make it a linear and panacea-delivering angel.

  8. Ed Bruske says:

    Thanks, Don, for that incredibly lucid post. Again I refer to the most recent University of Illinois studies, which found that Midwestern farmers had bought into the big fallacy of commnercial nitrogen. Nobody told them that much of the gains in production were not the result of nitrogen application, but the breeding of more production seeds. Farmers are wasting millions of dollars over-applying nitrogen, which kills the soil and pollutes our air and water in the process. Synthetic nitrogen is not necessary to fee the world–it’s just more convenient and more profitable for Big Ag.

  9. Jeff Gillman says:

    Don, That was a very nice post that is difficult to disagree with. We certainly have a culture of overfertilization (I currently have a graduate student working on a dissertation looking at the N requirements of hazelnuts — she is finding basically what you did). We can certainly do much better than we are currently doing in terms of applying excess N. My concern is that we don’t lose sight of the needs of our crops just to promote organic agriculture which has not come close to proving that it can feed the world.

  10. Ed Bruske says:

    Ah, but organic agriculture did feed the world. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that more labor-intensive organic agriculture was thrown over for the easier, more coporately profitable synthetic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers are responsible for so much bad in the world it would be hard to list them all here: death of soil, erosion, pollution of water and air, monocropping, the enormous need for toxic pesticides to support monocropping, death of diverse family farming, bankruptcy of rural communities. Shame, shame, shame for perpetuating the myth that we need synthetic fertlizers to feed the world (and if we’re doing such a good job of feeding the world, why are hundreds of millions of people hungry every day?)

    Here’s just one of many sites you can visit to expand your understanding of how organic agriculture can produce every bit as much as synthetically fertilized cropping, without all the horrible side effects.

    http://whyfiles.org/shorties/182organic_ag/

  11. Ed Bruske says:

    Oh, and I neglected to mention the corporatized agriculture synthetic nitrogen is spawn can also be held primarily responsible for nutritionally inferior diet industrial nations are now consuming. Feeding the world, you say? How about obesity and heart disease and high blood pressure and diabetes? And we haven’t even gotten to an entire generation of nutrionally altered children, addicted to corn-sweetened soft drinks and chemically-manipulated snack foods. We have become a population of lab rats feeding off of ConAgra, Monsanto and Archer-Daniels Midland. And it can all be traced back to the moment when farmers gave up producing diverse, wholesome crops in order to indenture themselves to the commodities market, all based on a system of fertilizing with synthetic nitrogen. No, thanks.

  12. Jeff Gillman says:

    Ouch Ed, that hurts. Do you really think that I want the world to be hooked on something as unsustainable and harmful as synthetic N? I’ve read Sir Albert Howard’s Agricultural Testament, I’ve read J. I. Rodale’s works, I’ve gone through Lady Eve Balfour’s works. I’ve looked at Nitrogen balances and even studied them firsthand. The problem isn’t fifty years ago, the problem is the population today. The population has grown, and the reason the population has grown is, in large part, because of synthetically fixed N. It’s a drug that the world has become hooked on and to leave it now, cold turkey, would leave many people starving. I am well aware of the good work that many groups are doing and I applaud them for it and I want them to succeed. But the assumption that we can all do this and suddenly the world can feed itself is – currently – wrong and irresponsible.

    One final note — If you look at what is considered organic agriculture today and what you’re considering organic agriculture — what we did fifty years ago — you’ll find a world of difference. Today we don’t use lead arsenate — today we would consider it insane to apply 1,000 pounds of sodium chloride per acre (if you think that applying synthetic fertilizers messes up the ground you should try this).

  13. Jeff Gillman says:

    Don, That was a very nice post that is difficult to disagree with. We certainly have a culture of overfertilization (I currently have a graduate student working on a dissertation looking at the N requirements of hazelnuts — she is finding basically what you did). We can certainly do much better than we are currently doing in terms of applying excess N. My concern is that we don’t lose sight of the needs of our crops just to promote organic agriculture which has not come close to proving that it can feed the world.

  14. Jeff Gillman says:

    Whoops — sorry about the duplicate post above — but I did have one other quick point. While we generally think that manures and such were used prior to the advent of synthetics in the 1920’s and 30’s that isn’t actually the case. In the 1800’s nitrogen was pumped into farms by using the organic — but non-sustainable — Chilean nitrates and Peruvian Guano — resources that are now largely used up.

  15. Pam says:

    I think that Jeff’s point about what used to pass for ‘organic’ compared to what we would like ‘organic’ now to be is an excellent point. There are many agricultural fields, many of which have been long abandoned, that are contaminated with high levels of metals that are next-to-impossible to remediate. Synthetic nitrogen has definitely been exploitative all around (besides the whole crazy energy thing, why were we thinking that there are no consequences to harvesting atmospheric nitrogen?) – but when your family doesn’t have food, and a little nitrogen fertilizer is perceived (and actually may) provide immediate relief – it’s hard to blame individuals or societies with respect to short term need. I remember reading once, back in grad school, an article about synthetic nitrogen being not only used to increased yields – but to a provide a sense of well-being because as the plant ‘greened up’, it looked healthier and the grower felt better. I remember thinking that it was a strange (aka nuts) article then, and I still think it is strange – the psychological or sociology of synthetic fertilizers if you will – a misleading visual perhaps, since as we know – it can also lead to increased infestations of pests, etc. All of this will perhaps be a mute issue one day, as genetically engineered plants take over. I wonder, then, if we’ll be looking back, thinking about the days when we used synthetic fertilizers as the ‘good old days’. I doubt it, but it’s just a thought anyway…

  16. Ed Bruske says:

    Jeff, I think you’re analogy of nitrogen as addictive drug is a good one. But you’re still wrong. The greatest population explosions have occurred in areas where artificial fertilizers are too expensive for the local farmers and where hunger still looms large. Go figure. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that artificial fertilizers have led to the huge girths of people in industrialized countries where farmers do use artificial nitrogen and to excess. I don’t think you can draw any corrrelation at all between population growth and the use of synthetic nitrogen. And yes, it’s true that many fortunes were made in the 19th Century by mining guano is South America as fertilizer. That lasted about a nano-second before the guano ran out. Again, it’s only when a product is cheap, easy and abundant do people turn away from the old-fashioned methods of composting and recycling animal manure.

    Where it will get really interesting is when Agribusiness and U.S. homeowners start battling over the remaining natural gas that is the feedstock for all that synthetic nitrogen (fertilzers account for 5 percent of our natural gas cumption at the moment). As you know, natural gas–a finite resource–has been tapped out for the most part in this country. Now we have become big natural gas importers. But the Canadians want theirs to turn tar sands into petroleum, and nobody wants a Liquified Natural Gas port in their backyard. About 50 percent of U.S. homes are heated with natural gas. The Germans initially used coal for the nitrogen process. But we know where that leads.

    Again, I say look to Cuba. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, they’ve learned to feed the entire country from local organic resources, without the synthetic nitrogen. Not only can it be done, it is being done. We can easily live without synthetic nitrogen.

  17. Ed Bruske says:

    some references here to recent U.S. studies showing the world could be fed with organic cropping and that yields from organic crops surpass those grown with synthetic nitrogen.

    http://www.ofa.org.au/newsletters/Organic%20Update%20July%202007.html

  18. Jeff Gillman says:

    Your point on natural gas is an excellent one, and I really appreciate your example of Cuba because that is one of the examples that is commonly use to prove my point. We should strive to be like the Cubans because they have done more for organic production than just about anyone but:

    Because of the reduction in synthetic N, Cubans are eating about 1,000 calories less per person and about 85% less meat than they did prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union (don’t get me wrong — I think this would be great for America).

    They are currently not completely organic — they use synthetic N at a rate of 10-20% of what they used to in the late 1980’s — using it primarily on their staple crops. I’ve linked to a page below — I hope it works.

    ftp://ftp.fao.org/agl/agll/docs/fertusecuba.pdf

    They are a net importer of food.

    So Cubans are healthy, but eating less than they used to, they’re importing synthetic N to feed their staple crops (admittedly less in recent years), and they’re a net importer of food. Once again, we should strive to reduce our use of synthetic N, but completely removing it would be a mistake.

    Regarding the recent US studies — very interesting, but these are mainly hypothetical models that I respectfully disagree with at this point.

  19. Jeff Gillman says:

    Ed (or anyone else), If you are interested I have an excellent article that was recently published by a friend of mine in HortTechnology — I don’t believe that it’s available online, but it’s cited as:

    Rosen, C., and D. Allen. 2007. Exploring the benefits of Organic Nutrient Sources for Crop Production and Soil Quality. HortTechnology 17(4): 422-430.

    It’s a very objective piece that reviews the literature and examines the benefits and drawbacks of organic production. If you would like it and can’t find it I would be happy to e-mail it to you.

  20. Jeff Gillman says:

    Ed (or anyone else), If you are interested I have an excellent article that was recently published by a friend of mine in HortTechnology — I don’t believe that it’s available online, but it’s cited as:

    Rosen, C., and D. Allen. 2007. Exploring the benefits of Organic Nutrient Sources for Crop Production and Soil Quality. HortTechnology 17(4): 422-430.

    It’s a very objective piece that reviews the literature and examines the benefits and drawbacks of organic production. If you would like it and can’t find it I would be happy to e-mail it to you.

  21. Jeff, would you email it to me? Many thanks.

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