Conventional agriculture uses large amounts of synthetic fertilizers to grow crops. This blog explains why synthetic fertilizers are not allowed in organic agriculture, and the alternative methods organic farmers use to enhance soil fertility.
A Vicious Cycle of Reliance on Chemicals
Chemically intensive farming methods can produce short-term benefits for farmers, but they result in the degradation of soil over time. This increases the susceptibility of plants to pests and diseases and means that in the long-run farmers enter a vicious cycle whereby they have to use more and more fertilizers, and the soil becomes degraded until it is no longer suitable for agricultural use.
Every minute mankind destroys the equivalent of 30 football fields of fertile soil, mostly due to irresponsible farming. As a result, we are losing 10 million ha of farmland every year.
Furthermore, it takes a lot of energy to produce synthetic fertilizers. This energy is derived from the burning of fossil fuels, which in turn threatens agricultural systems by worsening climate change.
Polluting our Lakes, Reservoirs, and Oceans
But synthetic fertilizers do not just have a negative impact on farmers and soil. The world’s oceans are suffering under an increase of dead zones, areas of low oxygen levels, which cause aquatic life to suffocate and die. There are now over 245,000 square kilometres of dead zones in our oceans. This is also a major problem in lakes and water reservoirs – and the main culprit is chemical fertilizer runoff.
Dead zones are a result of eutrophication, which happens when a body of water gets too many nutrients e.g. phosphorus or nitrogen. An overdose of nutrients leads to an overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae. When they die, they sink to the bottom and use up oxygen as they decompose. This process is depleting oxygen levels and causing the death of fish and other aquatic life.
One of the main causes of eutrophication is the runoff of chemical fertilizers from agricultural fields. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of fertilizers applied, the surplus of which is washed away by rain into waterways and oceans. In fact, the number and sizes of dead zones have doubled each decade since the 1960s, mainly due to agricultural pollution.
Eliminating chemical fertilizers from farming could make a significant contribution to the revival of dead zones. A good example of which is the black sea dead zone. Once the largest worldwide, it more or less disappeared between 1991 and 2001 when farmers stopped using fertilizers because they became too expensive.
Organic Alternatives to Chemical Fertilizers
In organic agriculture, productivity and resilience depend strongly on the quality of the soil. The organic farmer considers soil a living organism. Traditional methods of fertilizing, like recycling biomass (composting) and planting legumes – peas, beans, and other plants – have stood the test of time for centuries. These organic methods supply nutrients to plants in a steady manner and nurture the soil at the same time, which keeps farm systems resilient.
Organic farmers increase organic matter in soil through the use of cover crops, compost and biologically based soil amendments, producing healthy disease and insect resistant plants. Higher levels of organic matter in soil contribute to good soil structure and water-retention capacity. This substantially reduces the amount of water needed for irrigation.
Organic agriculture emphasizes good plant nutrition, which is key to the prevention of plant diseases. Organic farmers use cover crops and sophisticated crop rotations to improve ecological relationships in the field.
What We Want
It is clear that in the long-run, organic agriculture can provide healthy, fertile soils without the need for synthetic fertilizers and the negative impacts they have on our planet. We, therefore, call for: