King Corn

The New York Times has a report today on shortages of chemical fertilizers which are, in their inimitable, worrying caption, causing Iowa farmers to "[fall] back on manure for soil nutrients." Reasons include rising oil prices and increased demand for fertilizers to grow nitrogen-hungry corn which is then processed into biofuels to be used as an alternative to oil. Quite a system!

Chemical fertilizers are the cause of significant environmental problems and are a chief factor in the success of industrialized agriculture. From the article:

Agriculture and development experts say the world has few alternatives to its growing dependence on fertilizer. As population increases and a rising global middle class demands more food, fertilizer is among the most effective strategies to increase crop yields.
"Putting fertilizer on the ground on a one-acre plot can, in typical cases, raise an extra ton of output," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist who has focused on eradicating poverty. "That's the difference between life and death." [Link]

The demand for fertilizer has been driven by a confluence of events, including population growth, shrinking world grain stocks and the appetite for corn and palm oil to make biofuel. But experts say the biggest factor has been the growing demand for food, especially meat, in the developing world.
We see chemical fertilizers as a buy-now, pay-later gambit, with waterway pollution, soil depletion, and the exhaustion of fossil fuels used during its production exchanged for increased yields today. What do you think? Check out the article, and log in as gardenaut/gardenaut if you don't have an account.


Joshua McNichols said...

Falling back on manure seems to be a good thing, generally, since good honest solid manure holds its nutrients in a more stable form than chemical fertilizers. It also builds soil structure. However, food removed from the land is like mining - it removes minerals from the soil that may not be replenished entirely by manure. Those deficient nutrients still have to be mined and shipped in. Most farms today send out more than they take in - resulting in the degradation of our soils. It's like forestry or mining, it's an unsustainable system based on resource extraction. It's based on the consumption of healthy topsoil. The only truly sustainable system is a closed loop, where all nutrients are recycled locally. Once you've built up soil fertility, every waste material gets composted.

K said...

I'm curious to hear thoughts on using tractor exhaust as fertilizer for commercial farming. The cost of chemical fertilizer has gone up about 300% in the last twelve months. We use aged donkey manure for the garden and flower beds but it isn't practical for the fields.