Unsustainable Chemical Fertilizer: Ideology and Reality Collide

Recently I’ve been alarmed at what I read on sustainable farming blogs and articles.  I’m seeing more and more farms talking about foregoing all chemical fertilizer as a wise decision, and I see a lot of blog comments saying organic farms can “auto-fertilize” themselves.  There seems to be a growing ideology out there that sustainable farming means “no inputs” and that organic farms, especially those with livestock, should be a closed system requiring zero fertilizer for their soil.

I don’t want to ponder on the ultimate definition of “sustainable” because everyone seems to have a different opinion.  What I want to do here is set the record straight on chemical fertilizer and discuss how uninformed disdain for it can lead to unfortunate results on our farms, especially farms that raise 100% grass-fed animals on depleted soil.

The two major complaints about chemical fertilizer are its propensity to kill soil life and the fossil fuel energy-intensity that’s required to make it.  This is true for some chemical fertilizers, but not all of them.  Anhydrous ammonia and muriate of potash (potassium chloride) are probably the worst.  They do hurt soil ecology.  Since we’re practically begging soil life to come back to our farm, we would never use these two.  But we will use many of the other chemical fertilizers.

If you find yourself objecting to the word “chemical,” understand that all minerals necessary for life are chemicals too.  Our farm is in desperate need of calcium, so we’re going to apply calcitic lime.  Calcium is a chemical, and calcitic lime is a chemical fertilizer.  Fertilizers like this don’t harm soil life at all.  Instead, they help the soil ecology thrive by bringing the soil’s mineral components and pH into balance.

Regarding energy intensity, it’s true that a great amount of fossil energy is used to make fertilizers, especially nitrogen.  In very healthy soil with at least 5% organic matter, nitrogen is cycled naturally from the air and is made available to plants via soil microbes.  This natural cycle takes years to come back in depleted soil.  If I were growing a nitrogen-hungry crop like corn on our worn-out, 1.5% organic matter soil, I would need nitrogen fertilizer.  I would apply one that’s harmless to soil life, such as ammonium sulfate.  It’s unfortunate that ammonium sulfate requires fossil fuel to be made, but it does.  For our farm, our top goal is to grow nutrient-dense food, and given our soil situation, that can’t happen right now without fertilizer.

Many farmers have swirled these arguments around and around in their heads and have come to different conclusions.  Some have decided the best option is to forego all fertilizer except the manure that comes from their own animals.  This is admirable on the surface.  However, there are problems with manure coming from poor soil.

There’s no getting around the reality of depleted soil.  Soil lacking in nutrients and/or deficient in organic matter will not provide what’s necessary for plant quality.  Plants lacking in nutrients won’t completely feed animals and people.  Animals, especially 100% grass-fed livestock, will not do well grazing on worn-out soil because this soil is their sole food source.  Birth weights, milk yields, and meat quality will all be sub-optimal.  Unfortunately, many farmers are convinced that their animals’ manure will solve the problem.  Manure does indeed help with increasing organic matter.  However, when it comes to nutrients (chemicals) like calcium, magnesium, boron, zinc, etc., manure will not help.  If the animals’ feed doesn’t have good quantities of these nutrients, the manure won’t either.  The soil situation will get worse as meat and milk containing what’s left of these nutrients are sold off the farm, and the farmer, still convinced that manure will solve the problem, adds no fertilizer to replenish the soil.

This situation is called “organic by neglect”.  The farmer’s ideology is held intact, but the soil’s mineral content declines even further, and everything the soil supports – pasture quality, animal health, farm profits – sadly deteriorate.

The “no fertilizer” ideology bumps up against the reality of burned-out soil.   We have hundreds of thousands of acres of depleted soil in this country, but fertilizing thoughtfully and caring for soil life can bring them back.  So if you bad-mouth chemical fertilizers, please make it clear which ones you’re talking about.  Some of them deserve the put-down, and some absolutely do not.  Let’s also keep each other from going down the path that favors ideology over soil quality and animal health.  After all, what’s more sustainable to life than living, healthy, mineral-rich soil?

Part of Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday and Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Be on April 2, 2011 at 8:07 am

    Excellent and interesting post. All too often the “sustainable”, “organic”, “paleo” and “whole foods” communities become over zealous for the “all natural” without understanding the real issues of the farm. There is a time and place for technology.

    Reply

  2. I agree with you, to my mind the pH of the soil should be taken first, as Organic Gardener I would like readers to visit my site for answers

    Reply

  3. […] the end are definitely beneficial to feeding the micro's which then in turn, feed your plants. https://farmingsweetbay.wordpress.com…ality-collide/ The two major complaints about chemical fertilizer are its propensity to kill soil life and […]

    Reply

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