Organic Farming Reliant on Synthetic Nitrogen

A number of studies have suggested that organic farming better addresses issues related to climate change than non-organic farming. Many of the reported climate change advantages of organic farming flow from its prohibition of synthetic fertilizers and exclusive use of organic fertilizers. In the debate over the future of agriculture, organic food proponents have been using these results to support their arguments. One such statement is found in the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s August 2012 publication Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity which states “…organic farming has been shown to effectively mitigate climate change by increasing carbon sequestration in the soil, reducing greenhouse gas release and consuming less fossil fuel.” In comparison to non-organic farms, most of the climate change mitigation benefits of organic farms “were due to the high energy demand and emissions associated with the production of synthetic fertilizers used in the non-organic system.”

Since organic farming uses organic sources of plant nutrients, like animal manure or fish byproducts, it disassociates itself from the energy inputs and greenhouse gas production associated with synthetic fertilizer production, or does it?

I assert that organic farming, as it is practiced now in the US, is largely reliant on the very synthetic fertilizers and the confined animal feeding operations that it prohibits. The link in this reliance is animal manure and the key nutrient is nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient for global food production, and therefore the most important. Although the air is full of nitrogen, it is unavailable to plants until it is “fixed” in a form available to plants, such as ammonia. Nitrogen can be either biologically fixed or chemically fixed. Biological fixation occurs in legume plants and is the avowed source of nitrogen in organic farming.

Chemical fixation of nitrogen is done through the Haber-Bosch process, which currently uses natural gas to produce nitrogen fertilizer. This energy intensive process is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions associated with non-organic farming. See Adam Merberg’s post for more details and links.

To see the reliance of US organic agriculture on this chemical fixation of nitrogen fertilizer, one has only to follow the element back to its source and then determine if it was fixed biologically or chemically. The basic steps going backwards are manure Darwinian agriculture, Scaling Up has an example). Most of the nitrogen is conserved in this process (60% of the nitrogen in dairy cow feed ends up in the manure), going from soil through crop and animal to the manure. So the source of the nitrogen in the manure is determined by the source of fertility for the crops used to feed the livestock. Since the nitrogen in the manure from non-organic farms comes mainly from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, it is mostly fixed chemically. The route that the nitrogen takes between being chemically fixed and ending up in the manure does not change this. Chemically fixed nitrogen processed through livestock is still chemically fixed.

The problem occurs because the USDA organic standards designate manure, whether from organic or non-organic livestock production, as an allowed “organic” fertilizer, presumably because it came from a living organism. This means that, in the US, organic farmers are permitted to use manure from non-organic feedlots, chicken houses, pig barns, and fish farms. Often, the manure is processed (composted, pelleted, etc.) between the non-organic source and the organic farm, but this does not change the source of the nitrogen in the final product. Furthermore, most of this manure comes from confined animal feeding operations, which are prohibited under organic standards. These operations benefit organic farms by concentrating the manure, allowing it to be more easily collected than it is in grazing systems. The manure is then used on many organic farms where it is often their main source of nitrogen.

This system allows organic proponents to claim that they are free from all the downsides of synthetic fertilizer production while also claiming all the benefits of using manure for their system. However, this is clearly not accurate. As long as organic farms are allowed to use manure from non-organic farms, they are reliant on chemically fixed nitrogen.

Some may object that I am ignoring the on-farm fixation of nitrogen by legumes. While it is true that some organic farmers try to produce much of their nitrogen in this manner, I maintain that most of the large organic farms that make up the majority of organic acres and production, do not utilize biological nitrogen fixation to any significant extent. Furthermore, even if the manure being imported from non-organic farms contains mostly legume-fixed nitrogen, this nitrogen is often dependent on synthetic fertilizers supplying phosphorus and potassium to the legumes, without which they would fix much less nitrogen.

Ultimately, what is at stake here is the choice of what path agriculture takes in the future. If we are to make good decisions about the tradeoffs of various farming systems for dealing with climate change, increased global food requirements, and energy needs, then we need to understand the complete life-cycle impacts of each system. For true accounting in energy comparisons, sustainability comparisons, discussions of the productivity of organic agriculture, and the possible future paths of agriculture, knowing that US organic agriculture is reliant on the use of synthetic fertilizers (especially nitrogen) by non-organic farmers is important.

There is a remedy to this. Organic marketers and proponents could acknowledge that they too have challenges in addressing climate change. A step in this direction would to change the USDA Organic rules to prohibit the use of manure from non-organic farms. If organic farms were to use only manure that came only from organic livestock production, which itself relies exclusively organic feeds, this would close the organic nutrient loop. The organic food industry would then be able to support their claims of addressing climate change with regard to nitrogen source.

First posted October 9, 2012, at Perspectives on Sustainability.

Andrew McGuire is an Irrigated Cropping Systems Agronomist for Washington State University Extension. He works with farmers in the Columbia Basin of Central Washington in improving soils through cover crops and high residue farming systems.


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83 comments to Organic Farming Reliant on Synthetic Nitrogen

  • Ewan R

    The organic food industry would then be able to support their claims of addressing climate change with regard to nitrogen source.

    But not, one assumes, support their need for nitrogen.

  • pdiff

    I was browsing through “Enriching the Earth” by Vaclav Smil recently and he notes that “…emissions originating in synthetic fertilizers would account for 40-50% of recent atmospheric deposition generated by human activities.” and further says of N2O “… it may be anywhere between 20 and 50% of the total anthropogenic flux.”

    Clearly, even N derived from organic farms now contains a substantial amount of N originally derived from synthetic processes. There is no such thing as a closed loop in nature.

  • “As long as organic farms are allowed to use manure from non-organic farms, they are reliant on chemically fixed nitrogen.”

    Oh, but it’s worse than that.

    I was an employee at an organic farm for four years, the “tractor guy.” This was a fine job, a good farm. There was nothing wrong with what they did. But my god, the claims…these organic people make.

    They got a big grant to build this concrete composting facility, roofed over, with bays. Then they contracted with local restaurants, cafeterias and stores to have raw materials dumped into the compost facility, and my job was to turn it all with the bucket loader and record the composting temperatures in a log. All in the name of “sustainability.”

    I sat back in the Kubota one day and contemplated what I was doing and almost fell off the tractor:

    Think of the vehicles burning fuel to haul the vegetable scraps to the composter. Think of the neighbors hauling their truckloads of leaves to the composter. Think of me on that tractor, turning and turning, and moving piles from one side to the other. Then you load all that embedded energy into a spreader and drive through the field and it all just kind of disappears…

    I got to thinking: Where are these vegetable scraps from the college cafeterias and the chi-chi restaurants coming from? Organic farms? No, of course not. They’re coming from supermarkets and from Cisco.

    I was basically reusing all the synthetic fertilizers that the “conventional” farmers had used to grow the vegetables for the restaurants and cafeterias. We were just laundering synthetic fertilizers and calling it “sustainable organic agriculture.” We were bullshitting ourselves.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with recycling vegetable wastes and manure! We do it here at our own little heathen, non-certified, gentile farm.

    But we spare ourselves–and our customers–the bullshit.

    • Loren E

      Hi Mike,
      Sounds like you might be the ‘go to guy’ on all things manure. Just kidding. But a few years ago I attended a seminar by Carl Winter from UC Davis and I asked him if there is a central agency that enforces regulations on safe handling and composting of manure. He said he didn’t know of any. How does this stuff get checked?? Are we effectively on the honor system?? I think we can both agree that a mistake with this can be pretty dangerous.

      • Loren, the most I know is that there is a temperature that has to be reached (I think it’s 131 degrees F), and this has to be held for three days(?) Then it must be turned a certain number of times, and all this has to go into a log book for the certifier’s inspection. No one actually came out and tested the compost. I saw that thermometer go up to 170 degrees sometimes. The compost had to be wetted down, it would get so hot.

        In short–yes, it’s essentially an honor system.

        On our own goyim farm, there ain’t no inspectors, period. I “cook” the compost, turn it and pile it, store it. Any manure that we use gets cooked and piled for at least eight months, stored over winter, and then used on field crops like tomatoes and such. I tilled in a bunch of composted manure this fall for spring planting.

        • Rita

          Anti-semite much? Your comments suggest that organic orthodoxy does not deserve respect, and you “sarcastically” call yourself a goyim and gentile farm….wow. So organic farms are the Jews that we shouldn’t trust?? Don’t even try to wiggle out of that one. Color me insulted that the moderators didn’t edit these remarks – twice. No, it wasn’t overt but it was obvious and scores on the, “I know it when I see it” test.

          The USDA National Organic Program requires that compost be turned a minimum of five times within a 15-day period, during which time temperature must be maintained between 131 and 170F. It is not an “honor” system, it is a third party inspected process based system. Farmers have been penalized for not following this process, with suspensions and revocations of certification. The 2013 USDA AMS suspension list is literally 56 pages long (I guess some could see that as a black mark on organic; I think it’s a sign that it is clearly not an honor system). Organic is regulated and under the current administration the regulations have teeth.

          To the original posters article…yes, organic is far from perfect and those who promote it as being a silver bullet to climate change are doing a disservice to the label because there is inevitably consumer backlash when they discover the flaws. It’s a standard, not a gold standard. For many of us who have read the standard, and worked within the NOP rule, we see its imperfections and try to focus on continued improvement. I’ve worked in conventional longer than organic, and most of the farmers I consult with our mixed organic-conventional operations that shift production based on contracts. I think the ideal would be to have no organic label, and in the long run have much better regulation for agriculture in general. Taxes on polluters. Credits for good actors. We need to create incentive-based solutions for all farmers, big and small. I wish more energy went to this rather than both sides slinging mud at the other.

    • theoldtechnite

      I think it even gets worse than that, Mike, as Ewan R. pointed out. If you exclude all synthetic sources of nitrogen, than you are left with whatever rate of nitrogen fixing per acre that nature provides. Now, even the few organic yields per acre that are greater than conventional will fall far below that of conventional as a much greater amount of land will have to be used to now feed the cows organically grown, no synthetically sourced nitrogen crops, to get that organic manure.

  • Sanjay

    Honestly, folks, I’m on board that GMOs are an important tool for addressing many issues in agriculture and sustainability (and beyond: e.g. I’ve colleagues who work with GMOs that produce vaccine components) and I’ve argued for them from time to time against some passionate and ill-informed people. And I have a lot of problems with the odd fetishization of organics; I’ve noticed that _Nature_ pub showing their lower yields. But those _bona fides_ established — man, this _particular_ critique of organic farming is comically small beer. C’mon. The manure is out there anyway and I rather doubt that its use by organic farms is driving its production. In the current context, where every nut out there piles ludicrous and false assertions of bad-faith argumentation on those of us who support the further development of genetic engineering as an agricultural tool, we really ought to stay farther from the line than this, no?

    • theoldtechnite

      Reuse of nitrogen that’ll go to waste anyway is a good thing. But, if ORganic rules change so they must use manure that came from animals fed from only synthetic nitrogen free crops, then there nitrogen-acre footprint will be force to grow significantly. I.e. much more land would be needed to be pressed into service to collect the necessary fixed nitrogen.

      • Sanjay

        But that revision isn’t going to come, and even without it I think the question is moot. What I’m reading here, and above, is a whole lot of people trying to make a plant biology qeustion out of what is really an economic one. If the organic farm industry isn’t a significant driver of animal waste production (and I doubt it is) then exactly as you say, the nitrogen’s been produced anyhow, and so the claim of reduced climate impact relative to synthetic fertilizer use is solid. Ceratinly that might change if organic farming were to increase vastly as a driver of demand, and one could envision that happening, but I think it undercuts what McGuire is saying: right now organic farming, at least in this respect, bascially reuses a waste product (pun not intended).

        • Sanjay, you are right, organic farms reuse a waste product in manure, but so do many non-organic farms. Using manure is not a practice exclusive to organic farms, so what these studies are really saying is that use of manure is a benefit for reducing greenhouse gas release and consuming less fossil fuel. See another post of mine at
          http://www.biofortified.org/2013/09/soil-building/

          My other point, that of organic farms being reliant on synthetic N, stands as long as they use manure from non-organic farms, even if it is reuse. They still are not using biologically fixed nitrogen and so are not the alternative to the synthetic N ag system as they claim.

          • Ewan R

            And, infact, if one looks at the GHG production of N from cattle and N from synthetics… cattle don’t come out smelling sweet anyway. For GHG reduction one would be far better off skipping the middle man altogether.

            • Sanjay

              Well, that’s a _great_ example of muddling an economic question and a scientific one and thereby misconceptualizing the issue: again, if the cattle are going to be raised (and to defecate) in similar numbers regardless of whether the organic farming is going on or not, then, the cost of the organics is zero. You’re not “cutting out the middleman” because _it’s a waste product of another process_, whereas if you “cut out the middleman” and used synthetic sources, that _would_ be a nonzero cost. The only way this whole thing works is if you show that organic farming is a significant _driver_ of manure production, and that seems improbable, and nobody has made the slightest effort to do that. Look, folks, again: I’m more or less on your side. So let’s go back to pointing out yield problems and flexibility issues that favor all all-tools-to-hand, science-guided approach to sustainability.

              • Ewan R

                I was, however, proposing literally cutting out the middle man.

                Broadening the conversation, because frankly moaning about GHG production for fertilizer is such a distraction from an aspect of agriculture which is far more wasteful anyway – production of animals at all. My own personal ideal (as I think I’ve stated elsewhere within the broader conversation here) would be absolute elimination, but reduction such that manure production was minimal anyway (kept in situ for best results I feel) would do me fine (and is still far more radical than is ever likely to be accepted regardless of the sense it makes, the eponymous call of bacon apparently has the capacity to shut down reason)).

                In terms of overall sustainability an operation which produced zero animals and bought in synthetic fertilizer would, I feel, be far more sustainable than one which uses animals as a source of fertilizer (because the loop cannot plausibly be a closed one anyway, either way) (speaking of non-zero costs anyway, one wonders what it costs in terms of GHG emissions to ship in the countless tonnes of bullshit as opposed to shipping in the far more compact synthetics they are supposed to replace (if we’re using the manure from conventional operations the distances involved are unlikely to be insignificant, and if we’re producing even remotely respectable quantities of food then the quantities are likewise huge)

                So I’ll stand by my hope that the middle man can be altogether removed, although I do understand that in the current paradigm it is foolish *not* to recycle that waste which is produced.

  • First of all, I think very few organic farmers or organic organizations (with perhaps a couple notable exceptions on the radical fringe) would claim that organic agriculture has achieved a state of perfection with regard to addressing climate change. (Although there is probably a much higher percentage of organic farmers who are not climate change denialists, let’s also admit that!)

    Secondly, do you have any actual data to support your assertions, or is this just speculation and opinion? There are lots of issues of agricultural sustainability to address (as I’m sure Mike B will tell us all) – does this deserve the highest priority? How much non-organic manure is used on organic farm operations?

    Thirdly, you seem to ignore another key source of nitrogen – that is microbially-produced nitrogen. Soils with high organic matter can supply, on a continual basis, significant amounts of nitrogen (provided that the organic matter is maintained through crop residues, manures, etc.) There are also free-living nitrogen-fixers in the soil environment. Claiming that legumes are the only non-animal-manure source of nitrogen in organic farming systems is simply not accurate.

    Finally, your apparent sincerely-held belief (shared by most here, it would seem) that organic agriculture needs to be “brought down a peg” runs the very real risk of impeding real progress. The available data (as opposed to the academic speculation) demonstrates that organic farming has a lot to offer agriculture as a whole with regard to energy efficiency and climate change mitigation. We should be focusing on how to fine-tune, improve, and increase the uptake of these practices, rather than sitting on a high horse, throwing stones because we’ve convinced ourselves that maybe organic isn’t as perfect as we think it claims to be.

    • Rob, I am not looking for perfection, just an honest calculation of the quantity of greenhouse gases released by farms, both organic and non-organic. If organic farms use manure from both non-organic and organic farms, then that should be stated and included in the calculations, but that is not the case. In some (not all) studies, manure is is the miraculous off-farm source of fertility with no costs or downsides, but it has to come from some where, and I contend that much of it comes from non-organic farms, and so the reliance on synthetic N. I have looked for the data telling just how much manure used on organic farms comes from non-organic farms, but have not been able to find it. So, if the data does not exist, how can the claims that I mentioned be made?

      On your point about microbially produced nitrogen, please include the 20-30 lb of N/ac fixed per year. You can also include the N fixed by lightning. It does not change my argument at all.

      Finally, the energy efficiency and climate change mitigation benefits of organic farming that you mention are based on calculations which do not differentiate between manure from organic farms, and those from non-organic farms. This, as I stated, allows organic proponents to claim that they are free from all the downsides of synthetic fertilizer production while also claiming all the benefits of using manure for their system.

      • theoldtechnite

        How many pounds per acre of N does non-fixing nitrogen crops require for optimal growth?

        • Ewan R

          Depends on the crop I believe. Generally corn may have as much as 240lb/ac applied (on corn on corn, generally following soy you can reduce the figure by about 60lb/ac) – It’s also very dependant on geography, weather and whatnot – in my experience (limited to what I saw) there wasn’t a massive effect of additional N on corn in 2013 predominantly because all the N applied in 2012 was still hanging about (drought year so N wasn’t washed out).

          • theoldtechnite

            That would suggest that Organic Farming cannot supply the necessary amounts of Nitrogen needed for optimal growth unless, on average, a fair amount of land is used to collect the nitrogen to be applied to the actual crop acreage.

            • Ewan R

              I’m sure it can provide necessary although not optimum (at least for corn growth… corn is pretty greedy as row crops go though) levels – any method which uses manure requires quite a bit of land acting as an N feeder – if we assume the 20-30lb/ac soil fixation plus 60lb/ac from a good N fixing cover crop then you’re looking at 90 lb/ac production of N, so even if you could have cattle extract 100% of this and excrete 100% (impossible, but there you have it) you’d still need close to 2ac of land under cattle for every ac of land under corn to break even.

              Animals are good at translocating, in a rather inefficient manner, Nitrogen fixed in one place to another place. One simply cannot forget however that said Nitrogen was fixed somehow somewhere, and that there are costs associated (I’d agree that getting angry solely at Organic for this issue may be overkill, anyone doing a GHG generation study on their crop production should probably take all this into account, if they don’t shame on them, if they do, shame on Bush)

              • MikeB

                “Animals are good at translocating, in a rather inefficient manner, Nitrogen fixed in one place to another place. One simply cannot forget however that said Nitrogen was fixed somehow somewhere, and that there are costs associated …”

                This is a cogent insight and is the one thing that makes me question the whole idea of “sustainability”: I have a hunch it’s a hoax we’re playing on ourselves. Free of guilt, yet as implicated as the rest, I use my bagged N fertilizers judiciously, sparingly.

                I feel very lucky to be where I am: We have neighbors’ acres to hay for our animals, and the manure to use in our own fields. This is free for the taking because not one of our neighbors is a farmer.

                We don’t take our good fortune lightly, and never would I say that what we’re doing is “sustainable,” or “efficient,” or even “organic.” Not once.

                When genetic engineering leads to plants that can fix their own N, that is going to be a very, very big thing.

                • Sanjay

                  “When genetic engineering leads to plants that can fix their own N” — to my understanding this would be a bizarre thing for genetic engineers to work on; I would think you’d be more inclined to go ahead and tweak _Rhizobium_ or something else, that’s already doing a pretty good job fixing nitrogen all on its ownsome, and maybe doing work to make the plant a better host (or chemoattractant producer). It’s outside my field but I would be more than a little surprised to find that there’s a lot of folks working on taking nitrogen-fixing bacteria out of the equation.

                  • MikeB

                    You’re right, of course, and the phrase I used, “plants that can fix their own N,” is just a shorthand way of sayingm “hosts Rhizobium.” But I’ll let the biologists tell us more about that.

                  • Ewan R

                    to my understanding this would be a bizarre thing for genetic engineers to work on

                    Why? It takes about 24 or so ATP to fix nitrogen using the methods of rhizobium, 18 ish to get NO3 into your nitrogen supply. Housing a symbiotic bacteria clearly has extra costs associated above paying the metabolic cost of N fixation. Seems to me taking multiple approaches including getting N fixing plants would be better. I rather hope that is what is going on. I could, of course, not possibly comment on the reality of the situation.

                    I shouldn’t imagine it’d be about taking N fixing bacteria out of the equation. But corn, for example, isn’t overly friendly to N fixers, it doesn’t nodulate or anything, and imo engineering the 20 or so genes for N fixation (probably less than 10 to be fair) seems far more realistic a shot on goal than getting the plant to do all the crazy stuff soy does in order to accomodate its N supply.

                    • Sanjay

                      I think that’s way off base. The partnership between plants and symbiotic nitrogen fixers is hardly a passive one on the part of the plant, and involves substantial cross-signalling and coordination. What you’re talking about isn’t remotely swapping in “ten genes,” if you want to really somehow optimize nitrogen capture and get rid of whatever “waste” is associated with that symbiosis, then you’re talking about a profound change in the biology of the organism — something more like what the Greenpeace nuts think engineers are doing, than what they actually are doing. I think arguments that there would be known and unknown consequences to the plant’s biology of changing that ancient relationship, would be a lot stronger: it’s only in the past couple of decades really — maybe less than that — that we’ve started to grasp how much of an organism’s properties are determined by its symbioses. It’s for that reason that nobody is trying anything like this (or if they are, they sure aren’t publishing.) It’s solving a very, very hard problem with, I suspect, not a lot of payback. Some very clever plant microbiologist is welcome to weigh in if you think you’ve got some nifty source, of course, but personally I think we’ll figure out how to mkae people grow new limbs or something like that first.

                    • Sanjay

                      Or, to put it maybe more illustratively for general biologists if somewhat hyperbolically, that’s something like saying we could make people more efficient by eliminating their need for mitochondria because, hey, it’s only a dozen-odd gene products doing cellular respiration. Well, yeah, maybe in theory: but it’s nuts.

                    • Ewan R

                      he partnership between plants and symbiotic nitrogen fixers is hardly a passive one on the part of the plant, and involves substantial cross-signalling and coordination.

                      At no point have I claimed otherwise.

                      What you’re talking about isn’t remotely swapping in “ten genes,” if you want to really somehow optimize nitrogen capture and get rid of whatever “waste” is associated with that symbiosis, then you’re talking about a profound change in the biology of the organism

                      Err, not really, no. If one could introduce the nitrogenase genes from a bacterial species into a plant there are approximately 8-20 genes that have no homologs (I forget the exact number) and if one could protect them from oxygen (a big if) then you’d basically have active nitrogenase within a plant. This really isn’t that far fetched as a potential method for modifiying plants that don’t have a symbiosis with N fixers. But hey, what would my thoughts on the issue even be worth. I’ve only worked for Monsanto in R&D of genes to increase yield under stress conditions for five years. Three of which were specifically on Corn Yield under nitrogen stress.

                      Note, my original post above quite clearly made a distinction between inserting the ability to fix nitrogen (8-20 genes) and inserting the ability to form a symbiotic relationship with N fixers (hundreds if not thousands of changes (Soy for instance largely deals with Nitrogen in the form of ureides due to its symbiotic relationships, which involves multiple diverse pathways – and this is but one aspect) – although there is actually non-transgenic literature around attempting to get N fixing symbiotic bacteria to work in corn (they appear to be active in sugar cane, although in limited geographies, so the jump to Zea isn’t quite so significant as one might think) – still, this wasn’t at all what I was thinking, so your subsequent odd hyperbolic straw man on getting rid of mitochondria is simply bizarre and utterly off base.

                      Not all species have a symbiotic relationship with N fixers, so getting corn, for instance, to fix N would be quite a neat trick – once done in corn it’d most certainly be worth trying in Soy (a crop I worked on for two years, so again I’m not speaking from ignorance here) to see if the quite obvious costs of having a symbiont do your work can be avoided (Soy doesn’t do symbiosis if it can get sufficient Nitrogen from the soil, so clearly the symbiosis is not a necessary part of plant survival in all circumstance) it’d be a small leap of the imagination to think that some of the saved nutrients would wind up, oh, I dunno, in the seed, or somewhere they’d be somewhat more economically useful to a farmer (although clearly with tradeoffs… lacking N packed root mass at the end of the season would have a knock on effect)

                    • Sanjay

                      That’s an interesting set of thoughts, Ewan, clearly you have some great ideas. It doesn’t seem like anybody is publishing this kind of research though, and I think you hit exactly why: the necessary changes in plant cell biology to enable them to fix nitrogen in an anaerobic environment are not small — again, this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a matter of adding nitrogen-fixing genes, and if you did that, the result would not be a plant that can fix nitrogen. Plant micro isn’t my field. Metalloenzyme mechanism, however, has been, and I think what you’re imagining, isn’t going to happen any time soon. Again, think of the mitochondrion: it has an awesome ability to effectively segregate a chemical microenvironment, that its host does not, and _Rhizobium_ has the same advantage over the plant. Perhaps someone will publish something awe-inspiring though — surprising things happen.

                • Ewan R

                  Keep in mind also, that the major players who can throw money at the issue, are not going to publish anything until they have something that works.

                  Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta et al. do not publish unless either they have a product approaching completion, or have a line of research which while interesting isn’t likely to be become a product any time soon. This is the bane of corporate research, given what I’ve seen I’m rather saddened that

                  a) Other big biotech companies likely have just as much awesome science done that I’ll likely never know about and

                  b) Most of what I’ve seen is unlikely to ever be seen by most people involved in plant science (interesting phenotypes don’t necessarily lead to products, for instance)

                  c) It’s pretty likely that the big players either are currently, have, or will in the future, waste resources recapitulating interesting avenues of research simply due to corporate secrecy (which all goes to show that while I may defend the patent system as is, it has deep flaws which slow down research to an extent while (in my opinion) allowing it into these avenues in the first place)

                  Let us keep in mind though, that there are oxygen gradients within plants (C4 plants rather work towards this, although possibly not to the right levels at the cellular level), and indeed within cells, so while, by and large a plant is not an anaerobic environment, parts of it can be (to varying extents) (and perhaps with the aid of an extra gene or two could be made so (Soy already assists in making its nodules anaerobic, for instance))

                  Soon? Probably not. Perhaps in the next 3 decades though. I’m not sure we’re good enough at inserting enough genes at a time for the upper limits of what I’m imagineering to be plausible, but I have great hope that today’s almost impossible will be tomorrow’s run of the mill (at least in this instance… there are constant awesome advances in the ability to stick multiple genes into a plant))

                  Sadly as I now work in corn breeding I will be one step removed from anything astonishing, although hopefully I’ll still be able to see if anyone does do anything groundbreaking in this arena regardless of how far it goes (for sadly, even if it works, it’d have to work at a level that was economically viable in terms of a commercial product for it to have the best chance to be unveiled, although just possibly something so potentially groundbreaking, should it work but only a bit, would wind up as a flagship humanitarian PR wossname (either from Monsanto, Pioneer or Syngenta, whoever has the imagination and risk taking attitude to tackle such a project seriously)

                  • Ewan and Sanjay, interesting discussion. It seems to me that if evolution has never produced, as far as we know, nitrogen fixing plants without a symbiotic relationship with N fixing bacteria, that the probability of us producing such plants is slim to none. I am definitely out of my realm of knowledge here, but it seems that we are not just talking about inserting genes, but creating something entirely new, new genes, which I don’t think we have done ever. Has this been done?

                    • Sanjay

                      No, it won’t happen. Ewan is clearly very knowledgeable, but just as we saw plant biologists trying to answer a fundamentally economic question, now we see them trying to beat p-chem, and that _is_ my field, and what he’s proposing is nuts. I’ll make any bet you want on that thirty-year time.

                      Look: oxidizing nitrogen is _hard_. Like, really, really hard, just as oxidative phosphorylation is really really hard, but worse. I know that for plant/micro people it seems like you can do a whole lot by moving genes but you can’t. Look at the amazing grafting on of alternate metabolic pathways that, for example, Pete Schultz has done, and you’ll see that: you are really limited in what you can do. A glance at the amino acids in your freshman chemistry textbook tells you why: enzymes are very very good at Lewis acid/base chemistry, but they only have one teeny tine piece of redox chemistry (cysteine) [granted, other amazing things have have been discovered: Mike Marletta was on my thesis committee, and I can imagine him shrieking about topoquinone right here. But stuff like that is rare and specialized.] To make what Ewan says you can make, the redox environment of the cell has to change. There would be vast damage to other metabolic pathways; if nothing else you’d need whole new systems for mopping up peroxide. It’s one of those things where there’s already a good system and bioengineers might work to improve _that_, but as I said way back when, the idea that they might try to make plants fix their _own_ nitrogen is silly. It looks good, and I understand why, to a molecular biologist. But it’s scientifically a totally different kind of problem from what we talk about when we talk about genetically modifying plants, and I guarantee you no group at any of those firms is working on it.

                    • Sanjay

                      Oh, but your question: yeah, certainly we’ve created new genes with novel chemical function. I don’t know that anyone’s donw it in plants, but, eh. Again the issue isn’t new _reactivity_, it’s new _redox chemistry_. I think, depending on how you define “new,” people have done that too — cytochrome p450 is such a bomb, I’m sure Benkovic or someone has done something to tne it for some oddball substrate or other. But this isn’t a new gene, it’s a wholly new cell environment. _That_ — wow, not even in bacteria. And if you were at Monsanto and somebody proposed it, and you realized that trying instead to tweak the plant’s symbiotic relationships would be spending a lot less money with a more probable positive result (and, more to the point, if somebody else did that while you were trying to build a whole new cell, that person would eat your lunch) — the decision would be made right there.

                    • Ewan R

                      You wouldn’t need “new” genes, we know exactly which genes are required for N fixation. We know the cofactors. We know the genes that make cofactors. We know that many of the Nif genes already exist in planta, we know the cofactors involved exist in planta.

                      We even know that plant cells compartmentalize into different systems with utterly different redox environments. (I remain unconvinced that it’d require a new cellular environment, for one – there is such a range of environments available in plants – an as obligate aerobic prokaryotes can do it… imma say that given a push plants absolutely have a chance)

                      I do enjoy, however, being told what a big biotech company would, or would not, try and do. Although what’d I know.

                    • Sanjay

                      Ewan, jesus, the tradition I came up in was you try not to be a dick to colleagues. You might try it. It isn’t helpful to demonstrate that plant biologists, apparently, don’t know biology. I know what biotech firms would do because I’ve worked those big projects, from the academic, industry, and government side. No, I don’t know agbiotech, But what you’re proposing is biochemically laughable — no, plant cells do _not_ have compartments that much resemble rhizobia, and if they did, you couldn’t easily target gene products nor chemicals to them, and the project is therefore a _profound_ change: calling it a matter of swapping out ten genes is just not understanding the biology of the organism, and I challenge you to produce one paper in any eukaryote that does anything remotely like what you’re describing. Just one! Or would you rather eliminate the middleman of the literature as well? And agbiotech would stay away from it like the plague, for the reasons I’ve given, and because when they’re falling all over themselves to (correctly) portray what they’re doing as basically small biochemical changes to well-established and common biochemistry, it would be politically and scientifically _insane_ to fund this kind of project. The anti-GMO campaigners would have a field day. It’s not even helpful, to the cause of promoting GMOs as a useful tool, to suggest that they would. You might want to try asking somebody who makes decisions in those agbiotechs you work for, how they make ‘em. You’ve no need to trust me.

                    • Ewan R

                      Not being a dick to colleagues? You’re not my colleague. You’re basically telling me how decisions would get made at the sort of company I work for. Meetings I’ve been in. People I know. People I have discussions with around the coffee pot.

                      Nitrogen fixation probably isn’t even as off the wall as some ideas which are being explored in a preliminary fashion. High risk/high reward projects are part of any balanced research program (the mix likely varies company to company (where risk here = risk of failure, rather than risk of blowing up the planet)).

                      Sadly I cannot (obviously) disclose the actual details of any given project, but there are many for which there is no current strong literature evidence (either because the technology is too new (or some of the technologies too new) – I do, for instance, think it hilarious that you’re of the opinion one cannot target cell types, or organelles within cell types, with proteins (that at least appears to be what you’re suggesting) given that I’ve worked in an environment where this is relatively trivial (and the literature is replete with examples of tissue/cell type specific promoters, RNAi which further fine tunes expression, and targetting peptide motifs which ship proteins essentially wherever one might wish) – I have at least one current project I developed myself that I know for a fact has no precedent in literature and which I, at least, believe has the capacity to wind up increasing corn yield. Given that said idea has been given the green light for testing and has resources allocated all I need do now is wait and shepherd it through the next few years to find out if I’m right or wrong (I’ll revisit this in a decade should it work, as that’s about the time it’d be commercialized…) but sure, keep telling me I don’t know a process I’ve been intimately involved in for the past 5 years… that’s totally not a dickish thing to do at all (is that a beam in your eye or are you just pleased to see me?)

                    • Ewan R

                      (said idea, has, for the record, utterly bugger all to do with N fixation)

      • Jordan Green

        If the organic farms aren’t responsible for the creation of that manure to begin with, then there is no reason organic farms should have to tally GHGs emitted from them at all.

        Your position is little more than a hit piece on organic farming with nothing to back it up. Sorry.

        • Sanjay

          Yes, exactly. I’m no friend to the folks claiming the whole world needs to farm organically: there’s yield problems, there’s soil problems, and, jeez, it seems to me that the developing-world subsistence farmers clamoring for GMOs already know all there is to know about organic farming. But I see no virtue in senseless attacks on it either, and in fact it always seems to me that organic farming is a very very good thing: if we were smarter we could explicitly cross-subsidize making produce available to everyone, out of the willingness of some people to pay much more for “organic” produce. I’m all for there being “high-status” and “low-status” carrots as long as both are equally tasty and nutritious.

          • MikeB

            …it seems to me that the developing-world subsistence farmers clamoring for GMOs already know all there is to know about organic farming.

            You mean about such things as plastic-mulch-laying machines, or sophisticated irrigation systems? Or were you referring to heated greenhouses, or roofed composting facilities? Or pallets of bagged amendments such as mined greensand, rock phosphate, and magnesium lime?

        • Jordan, take a look at this study given in another comment.
          http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/044045/article

          If organic farming is partially reliant on synthetic N, as this study shows, then that has to come into the calculations for GHG. In addition, this reliance is probably greater in the US, than in Europe where this study took place, because European regulations prohibit use, on organic farms, of manure that is the output of ‘factory farming’. I am not aware of any such prohibition in the U.S.

          • theoldtechnite

            I’m not so sure you can hold organic farming accountable for GHG’s that would’ve been made anyway, if i’m understanding the process correctly. I.e. Conventional will make X tons of manure, whether or not it is used. In this case Organic farming help use some of it in lieu of other sources of nitrogen, such as pressing more land into service. If that’s true, then Organic farming is actually helping to reduce GHG in this instance. So would any farming that uses up that manure.

            The other side of the coin still holds true, though, that that manure would not be here in the first place for Organic farming to use if it were not for the existence of synthetic driven conventional farming. Between the two sides of this coin, the European position of not allowing their conventionally produced manure to be used in all farming endeavors seems to be particularly counterproductive.

            But the thrust of the article, GHG’s not withstanding, is that present day Organic farming is partially dependent on synthetic nitrogen. It may also be true that Organic farming’s GHG’s footprint may increase if it were forced to supply all it’s nitrogen needs.

            I guess, your position in calculating GHG shares, is that conventional farming was first renting a house and then Organic farming moved in too. The rental of the house didn’t change but it’s only fair that Organic farming pay its share. But, at least, the total rent paid isn’t changed whereas if Organic were forced to get their own house, as in Europe, then the total rent would indeed be larger.

            Just my thoughts. – FO

            • That’s right, when organic farms use manure from non-organic farms, they effectively become part of the system using synthetic N. Furthermore, the carbon they are storing in the soil as a result of using imported manure comes at the cost of other soil (where the crops that produced the feed that produced the manure came from) that loses carbon because it did not receive any manure application. Admittedly, it is a complex calculation, but simplifying it by ignoring the source of the nitrogen and manure does not give us a true view of the situation.

              Limiting organic farming to biologically fixed nitrogen would, in many cases, require more land for the production of an equal amount of food, with other implications for greenhouse gas production.

              • theoldtechnite

                That’s another question i have. Just how much carbon can one store in soil? I’d imagine there is a mazimum amount. First, i think, most of the weight of soil is from particles of minerals such as silicates. I’d think there would be a maximum depth limit to it too. At some point carbon absorbtion would have to stop or else you end up with a layer of anthracite coal. At that point, it would still have to stop. And, if organic farming were to force more land into farming, would that release more carbon than would be saved in the newly minted organic fields?

                • Yes, there is a limit on how much carbon can be stored in the soil. It depends mostly on temperature, soil water levels, and soil texture.

                  I would guess that having to farm additional land would release more carbon, because it would be forest and grassland that would be converted.

                  • theoldtechnite

                    And, of course, that brings up another question:

                    Is the delta of carbon load on the environment between Organic vs conventional farming per hectare times all farmed hectares significant against the carbon load of civilization. I.e., is it worth pursuing even if some yield loss is incurred or are we risking hunger for insignificant carbon gains? Or, even more importantly, is the delta change to the environment that that delta carbon affects significant enough?

          • chouaneur

            Bonjour à toutes et tous

            If you wish to know more about it on rule of the “organic” agriculture in France.

            The “organic” farmers in France can use organic contributions stemming from the agriculture conventional. But it provided that these are stamped(composted).

            http://www.fnab.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13:la-reglementation-de-la-bio-bref-resume&catid=8:reglementation&Itemid=17

            Otherwise, I find your very well made and especially very rational site in the treatment of the proposed subjects.To such a point that for some the agriculture(farming) “bio” became a religious concept.
            In France we are lacking on these subjects (especially on the PGM) rationality.
            The agronomic pseudo-science (junk science) became at our home a politico-ecological fashion.

            Good day

            Cordially

    • I agree we need to be careful not to pick things apart just because of where the idea comes from. But at the same time, when groups or individuals claim something they deserve to have that claim looked at skeptically.

      As I’ve said before, organic has a lot of methods to offer – many practices that could help ag be more sustainable. Even if all the hype is true, though, organic is still only a small percentage of total farmland. I’d love to see some of those methods brought out to be more mainstream so the benefits could be realized on many more acres while allowing farmers to retain some flexibility on other methods.

  • Joel Starr

    We use to depend on manure from a feedlot for N. We have switched to using cover crop mixes with hairy vetch and a N fixing bacteria on the seed. On one field we ran out of cover crop seed, so we put on 10 tons of composted manure on 5 acres. The corn the next year where there was cover crops was green all the way to the ground. The composted manure area had corn the was quite short on N. it was night and day. Gabe Brown doesn’t use N after cover crops, and his corn looks great.

  • Nice point Andrew,you may be interested by this recent study from Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France that shown organic farmers in France are heavily dependent on non-organic producers: On average 25% of N, 50% of K and even more critically 75% of P comes from manure of non-organic feedlots.

    [url=”http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/044045/article”]To what extent does organic farming rely on nutrient inflows from conventional farming?[/url]

  • Thanks for this post and also to those who commented: I learnt so much!! And would like to share this as well, thanks again.

  • theoldtechnite

    Would this be a starting model of Nitrogen flowing through a farm?

    N(t1) + SN(t1) + A*NH(t0) = NH(t1)/K

    Where N(t1) is Organically fixed Nitrogen, SN(t1) is synthetically fixed Nitrogen, NH(tn) is the fixed Nitrogen captured by the resulting harvest, A is the percent fixed Nitrogen of that harvest used or recycled back into the farm and K is the percent of fixed nitrogen that the resulting harvest captures. t1 represents the preeent season, t0 represents the previous season.

  • chouaneur

    Bonjour/bonsoir

    I am French.
    Please excuse me for my English of low level.

    Here is an rather recent French study which has conclusions very close of your.

    http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/4/044045/article

    Very cordially,

    Chouaneur

    • theoldtechnite

      Votre anglais est tres bon mais je parle le francais comme une vache espagnole !

      • chouaneur

        Bonjour/bonsoir,

        A all happy new year and above all good health in 2014!

        @theoldtechnite

        Thank you for my correct English.J’essaye de faire le mieux possible en évitant de
        parler l’anglais comme une vache portugaise (Bad french joke it is true).Je précise que je ne suis pas raciste !

        However your french seems very correct even if it is equivalent to a Spanish cow… francophone.

        @Andrew McGuire

        Too bad, I can not open your link.

        Otherwise with all these studies, it seems obvious (at least to me) that organic agriculture is heavily dependent on fact of conventional agriculture.
        In France some people very involved in an irrational ecological vision of the world, want agriculture passes while “bio” accompanied by a drastic reduction in the consumption of meat.

        Also, when asked agronomic fundamental questions concerning arable crops to those people there, there is never rational response.

        For example:
        How will manage you exports (N-P-K and other)?
        Organic refunds (N-P-K and other) you find how if you only have a 100% “organic” agriculture?

        And nothing, no response apart from ideological litanies for ignorant environmental activists.

        Kind regards

        chouaneur

  • Paul

    I know that this article is talking about organic farms being still dependent on synthetic fertilizers but as long we talking about sustainability maybe non organic farmers are too dependent on synthetic fertilizers. Maybe non-organic farmers should utilize more natural forms of nitrogen to help off set some extra green house gases. I think there is something that conventional farmers can learn from organic farmers and vice versa.

    • Paul, I agree, when possible we should reduce our reliance on synthetic N, and also improve the efficiency of what we do use. However, we must do this without bringing more land into production, which unfortunately, is what using nitrogen fixed by legumes usually means, at least if we want equal yields.

      If Vaclav Smil’s calculations are right, he says in his book Enriching the Earth (highly recommended) that “Even if all the energy needed to fix nitrogen fertilizer would come from natural gas, it would be just 5% of the recent annual global consumption of the fuel, and about 1.3% of all the energy derived from fossil fuels.” It seems to me that since we need to eat, there are a lot of other ways to cut fossil fuel use and leave what remains for producing essentials, like nitrogen fertilizer, at least to get us past the 9 billion population peak that is forecast.

  • Andrew – here’s a reinterpretation of your analysis.

    1. In the US, you’ve created a conventional agriculture so wanton in its use of energy that it discards as waste a fertility resource of sufficient scale to have become the major fertility input into your organic agriculture.

    2. We’ve created a global economic ideology so congenitally incapable of considering limiting the supply of resource-hungry foods and commodities as an option that it cannot view agricultural systems that produce lower per acre yields as anything other than environmentally inferior.

    3. That same economic ideology gives organic producers who wish to stay in business few options other than fulfilling what’s minimally required of them by whatever organic regulations are dreamed up by the certifying bodies, and otherwise pursuing the lowest cost resource inputs.

    4. Organic and conventional farming systems have become so ideologically polarised that posts like yours encourage people like MikeB to trot out the same anecdotal criticism of organic farms that he’s used on countless other anti-organic websites like this one while employing disgraceful ethnic slurs to imply that Jews and organic farmers consider themselves superior to others.

    I’d be grateful if you could point out where, if anywhere, my interpretation on these points errs. Yes, it’s worth highlighting the weakness in American organic regulations that opens the door to synthetic nitrogen but you could equally use this as an indictment of conventional agriculture and the food economy associated with it. The fact that instead you choose to belabour organic agriculture with your analysis surely puts you in the company of MikeB as an ideologue for conventional agriculture and the present neoliberal food economy?

    • Paul Anderson

      “1. In the US, you’ve created a conventional agriculture so wanton in its use of energy that it discards as waste a fertility resource of sufficient scale to have become the major fertility input into your organic agriculture.”

      In regards to this point, remember that organic agriculture in the U.S. is only a little more than 1% of total farmland acres. So the amount of fertility that organic agriculture receives from conventional agriculture is a very tiny fraction of the total fertility stream. It’s not THAT wantonly wasteful.
      Further more, it is incorrect to assume that that fertility resource would be “discarded” if not for organic agriculture. Most of it would be used by conventional agriculture if organic agriculture did not exist.

  • Idea for game show – “So you think you’re organic?’ Every week we visit one farm that is certified organic and trace their nitrogen inputs back to the source. Then we tally how much of that nitrogen was initially fixed by Haber-Bosch. If they get below a certain threshold they win a truckload of manure. Or something.

  • theoldtechnite

    @Chris

    1) Organic farming cannot partake, on principle, in synthetic fertilizers, even if it meant savng the crop from certain doom. Therefore, manure will always be a major input. Synthetic fertilzer do not require large amounts of land that green manure requires. Both the land and the labor + inputs are expensive compared to synthetic fertilizer.

    2) Lower yields per acre means more land farmed, more forest and wild areas destroyed. 25% drop in yield means 33.3% more land.

    3) He’s pointing out that if Organic farms were to use only manure whose nitrogen was fixed through only natural means, that is going to press a significant amount of more land into organic farming service just to produce the same amoutn of food.

    4) I’m Jewish and i’m not offended. I took it for what it was, a simple, tongue in cheek, allusion to the Kosher non-Kosher rules which are religious based and, as such, are not entirely logical. By the way, Kosher rules include a fail-safe. You can eat anything that is necessary to sustain your life in the particular situation you might find yourself in. I.e. if you were stuck on an island with nothing but wild pigs to eat. Then those pigs at that time are Kosher for you.

  • @Theoldtechnite

    1. Clearly US organic farming DOES partake in synthetic fertilizers – that’s the whole point of McGuire’s post. The question is whether this matters, and if so why.

    2. Lower yields equate to more land farmed only if you hold output constant. We can, if we wish, try to maximise yield per unit area, or per unit energy input, or per unit labour input, or per unit carbon emission, or per unit of direct human nourishment produced. The fact that, all other things being held equal, organic farming has lower yields per unit area does not mean that more forest and wild areas will be destroyed if we switch to organic farming, for the simple reason that switching to organic farming does not require us to hold all other things equal.

    3. Your third point has no bearing on my third point – it’s just a restatement of your second point.

    4. You do not have the monopoly on interpreting MikeB’s intentions – he didn’t use the term ‘kosher’, he used the terms ‘goyim’ and ‘gentile’. I took his comment to mean – and I believe he’s said as much on other blogs – that organic farmers consider themselves to be better people, a breed apart, from conventional farmers. I don’t think that’s true, and nor do I think it’s good to use ethnic categories to make the point.

  • theoldtechnite

    @Smaje,

    1) I was pointing out the manure is a major input for Organic farming because they have few other choices, not because conventional farming makes it readily available.

    2) If you are going to let total output fall, then what are you going to feed people? Yes, you can cut down on meat, but that can only be done by forcing people to do so, either by edict or much higher prices, which also means higher prices for the base food (The price of meat rises and falls on the price of feed). If you do cut down meat that much, that also means manure supplies will also be down, forcing much of the land once used to feed animals to be used for green manure. Out of all the variables mentioned, land is the one we don’t make more of.

    4) Again, not offensive. And, truth be told, there seems to be an air of superiority among much of the Organic crowd. “We’re saving the Earth, You are killing it!” to paraphrase.

    3) May be, but your point doesn’t seem entirely clear.

    • @theoldtechnite

      I think our little debate has probably run its course so this is my last comment, but really it’s not difficult to feed everyone globally very well with low or no synthetic nitrogen if you make some different assumptions – one of which is that it’s not OK for the wealthy few to appropriate a disproportionate quantity of agricultural productivity for themselves across many domains not restricted to fodder production alone. It’s easy to feed everyone well with less than current output. Call it ‘edict’ if you like, but what choice or say do those most at risk of hunger get over how the world’s resources are allocated? Neoliberal consumerist models don’t allocate global resources well, and don’t even claim to. Make some different assumptions about labour, crop choice, energy use etc and this whole organics vs synthetics debate disappears.

      No point continuing this ‘yes it’s offensive’ ‘oh no it’s not’ discussion. And personally I’ve got no interest in silly debates about what kind of farmer is the fairest of them all – all that matters is figuring out sensible farming systems that are fit for the future.

  • theoldtechnite

    @Smaje;

    The rich don’t eat THAT much more than the poor, maxing out, i would dare say, a few times the caloric consumption from poorest to richest. Most rich people do eat sensibly. It’s the rare eccentric that insists on caviar every morning. So, sorry, the rich aren’t eating everyone out of house and home. They may build supersized houses and occasionally eat at fancy restaurants (where most of the cost goes into the service and prep rather than the actual food) but their own bodies can only be so big.

    “all that matters is figuring out sensible farming systems that are fit for the future.”

    On that we can all agree.

  • @Paul Anderson: fair point, but then again if organics are THAT insignificant in US agri why does this site expend so much energy running it down? Go pick on someone your own size! Like other farmers, organic farmers are trying to figure out what’s best for the land while trying to earn a living in an unsympathetic marketplace. If and when market conditions change you may find they’re well placed to take advantage, and if folks here stopped running them down and listened to them they might even learn something useful from them. As to conventional reuse of manure, well maybe – but for now there must be a greater gain from trade going on with selling that synthetic nitrogen off the holding to the organic farmers and then buying more in. So why not let’s applaud the organic farmers for making use of it and coming to the market?

    @theoldtechnite. It’s not that rich people eat a lot more calories (though there’s a much bigger land take if their calories are meatier and milkier than the poor’s, which is invariably the case). It’s that there are endless ways in agriculture in which poor people have their choices curtailed by the choices of the rich – eg. land grabs for biofuel or palm oil plantations, the overproduction of tropical cash crops, speculative land value acquisitions, landholder rent extraction and arbitrary power etc. Basically the same sort of reasons why small farmers once left Europe in their droves and moved to America. We teach our kids that they can’t always have what they want, and yet when we become wealthy adults we object to anything that threatens to curtail our freedom to demand whatever we want of the global food system. The world’s poorest billion earn $1 a day and have virtually no choice – so personally I really don’t care if policies threaten to restrict the choices of the wealthy. There is massive slack in the global food system to feed everyone sustainably and well, but not without thorough restructuring. That is a much more important issue than the fact that a few American organic farmers are using a bit of synthetic nitrogen.

    • Chris, my goal in writing this was to help us all make the better choices when deciding how to move towards more sustainable farming systems. Since organic farming is being portrayed as the best choice by a vocal marketing industry, farmers, and consumers, I think it is important to point out the reality of nutrient use on US organic farms vs. what marketers/farmers/consumers are claiming. That is my goal.

      You bring up many points that fall far outside this limited goal, which is why I have not addressed them here.

    • Paul Anderson

      Chris, I’m quite willing to applaud the organic farmers for doing what they can do to recycle nutrients and efficiently conserve resources. All farmers should do those things, to whatever extent is possible. As for why that flow of nitrogen from conventional to organic is profitable is due to the premium organic farms receive(from a rather sympathetic marketplace). They can pay more for the animal waste nitrogen than the synthetic nitrogen originally costs. It’s “value-adding”, if you will. Conventional ag buys synthetic N, converts it to “organic” N via plants and animals, and resells it as higher priced “organic fertilizer.” Conventional agriculture is quite capable of reusing that nitrogen themselves if the premium for organic did not exist.
      However, the Organic Industry’s PR machine seems to think it necessary to promote themselves by running down conventional agriculture. It is the idea that conventional farmers are destroying the environment/soils/world/whatever and that organics are the salvation of the same that I feel a need to protest. Conventional farmers and researchers did not start this fight, but at some point it’s necessary to defend oneself. The Organic PR machine would like to do away with conventional farmers and allow only what farming practices they deem acceptable. Andrew pointed out that they are dependent on the very practices they despise. I think it’s a point everyone needs to understand.

      • theoldtechnite

        Paul, Isn’t it true that a fair amount of conventional farmers also take advantage of manure?

        Chris, i don’t think it matters how the land is sliced and diced to the rate of natural nitrogen fixing one can achieve. Nor is it unsustainable to produce and use synthetically fixed nitrogen. It’s already mentioned how little of our total energy usage goes into it and it has been mentioned that fossil fuels are not critical, but merely cheaper, for the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. It sould also be noted that, yes, people did come to the New World for the nearly free land and loose retrictions but they were mostly farmers because, in the 1700’s, most people were farmers, in the mid 90’s percentile, if i remember correctly. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s immigration waves were much more varied in professions.

        Even with a totally equal distribution of land and resources (an idea that has been attempted and failed in the former Soviet Union), large areas will experience good production and large areas will not, with fairly large fluctuations. So, we would still be faced with large distribution problems. That’s just the way the world has evolved.

        • Paul Anderson

          Oldtechnite: Certainly conventional farmers use manure when feasible, it’s just that the organic farmers will often pay more for it than it is worth to conventional farmers. (conventional farmers can simply buy more synthetic nutrients, organic cannot) That’s not to say that all manure gets used to maximum effectiveness, there are areas of the US that have such a high concentration of livestock overall that there isn’t enough farmland (of any type) within hauling distance to use that manure. Those regions are a different kind of challenge, tho. Organic vs conventional farmland doesn’t make much difference in dealing with those issues.

  • OK, here’s my last shot at this – organic farmers in the US may have it easy if Paul Anderson is right, but here in the UK things ain’t so sweet so I need to get back to some actual farming. I know very little about US agriculture (here in the UK it’s not so easy for us to use conventional manure, though I’m sure synthetic nitrogen still finds its way into organics), but based on my experiences here I’d suggest:

    #1 ‘Organic PR machine?’ What proportion of corporate agri-food lobbying, or food policy analysis, or agricultural research budgets, or media food advertising is devoted to the organic sector? From my perspective, the ‘organic PR machine’ looks like a rickety handcart desperately skittering along the tracks as a giant corporate agribusiness/biotech locomotive bears down on it.

    #2 ‘dependent on the very practices they despise’. First, organic farmers in my experience don’t ‘despise’ conventional farming or farmers – they just think that there are some long-term problems with certain conventional farm practices that need addressing. And second, anybody who ever tries to take an ethical stance on anything is always open to the charge of hypocrisy since it’s never possible to avoid complicity with the status quo. Since our economies are completely grounded in cheap fossil fuel this is certainly the case with organic farming. To my mind the charge of hypocrisy is always a risk worth taking and it’s always worth trying some different ideas. Sure there are some over-inflated ethical claims made for organics…but maybe its critics should take a good look at themselves and ask themselves if their critiques are really just motivated by high scientific principle.

    #3 Agreed, there’s little intrinsically wrong with synthetic fertiliser. But there’s a lot wrong with the way that fertiliser is used globally – which is why you guys have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico while farmers in other countries who could do something useful with the nitrogen you wash down the Mississippi go without. The world could get by with little or no synthetic fertiliser. I’m not saying that that would necessarily be a great idea, but the fact is we have choices – something that the ‘agribusiness PR machine’ with its self-serving narrative of 70% more food from the same land area by 2050 is keen to deny.

    #4 The benign economics of organic agriculture that Paul Anderson describes don’t apply here, and to be honest I’m sceptical that they exist in the US. Organic farmers get a higher price, but that’s amply compensated for by higher input costs. A few people jump on the organic bandwagon for financial reasons, but don’t tend to last that long – most people do it because they believe in it and they’re not better off than other farmers. If organic farming in the US is so easy that its farmers can price out the conventional guys in the market for manure (and its ‘PR machine’ so effective), you’d expect to find more than 1% of land in organics. Counter-theory: organic farmers buy manure because it’s the cheapest allowable thing they can buy, whereas conventional farmers find it easier just to buy in more synthetic nitrogen.

    #5 theoldtechnite: I don’t really see the relevance of your points about later US immigration or land distribution. The only reason I raised these issues was because you appeared to be objecting to food policies that involved ‘edicts’ on what people could eat. My point is that that in fact is the reality of food policy for most people globally, in some measure because of the food choices of the wealthy few – the notion that people shouldn’t have their food choices dictated to them is basically a conceit of those wealthy few, undergirded by an infantilising consumerist ideology that whatever people want to have ought to be provided for them by the market.

    #6 Andrew: obviously it’s up to you how you choose to circumscribe your analysis and to respond to comments. But every analysis points to wider questions and every analysis is framed politically (your ‘vocal marketing industry’ point speaks to your own wider political framing of your analysis). Sure, it’s useful for people to know that there’s synthetic nitrogen in organic food. It’s also useful for them to know a lot of other things about the global food system. Unavoidably, what each of us chooses to address and not to address reveals our politics. However limited the intentions of your piece, “to help us all make the better choices when deciding how to move towards more sustainable farming systems” will ultimately have to involve addressing the points I’ve raised, and many others besides.

    #7 You folks are probably right that there’s a large-scale organics lobby making some questionable claims about the pure provenance of its product. But I think you’d be better off questioning the underlying economics that has pushed the organic movement into a doomed attempt to relentlessly scale up, cut costs and play large-scale conventional farming at its own game (and, for that matter, has pushed conventional farming to relentlessly scale up and cut costs too).

    That’s it, more on this soon at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/ .

    • Paul Anderson

      #1. Things like Genetic Roulette, Food Inc, and (most disturbingly) the Chipotle Scarecrow are all part of the organic PR machine. The strong success of Whole Foods, for example, illustrate its strength. I don’t think “Cheerios” are going Non-GMO just because of a rickety handcart.

      #2. The MOSES(http://mosesorganic.org/)organic conference is one of the largest annual assemblies of organic farmers in the U.S. I’ve gone there twice, to learn about and learn from them. I quickly learned to hide the fact that I’m a conventional farmer. It avoided a lot of vitriol , and frankly, I was outnumbered. Very educational, in many ways. That is the group that has shaped my view of organic farmers. Many are just trying to do their thing their own way in whatever little niche they’ve found. I wish them well. BUT, they aren’t the vocal ones.

      #3. The Gulf dead zone isn’t caused by nitrogen (it’s almost never limiting in aquatic ecosystems) but by phosphorus. Certainly it’s a problem, and all farmers AND cities(waste systems) need to be concerned about it. But it’s not something unique to conventional farms. Phosphorus from agriculture enters rivers through soil erosion and that’s a concern for both conventional and agriculture. The more you work the ground the more it’s susceptible to erosion, at least here. Everyone who contributes to the river phosphorus load needs to work to minimize it, and that’s agriculture AND cities both.

      #4. I’m sorry if I’ve come across as saying that organic farmers have it easy or much more lucrative than conventional farmers. That’s not what I meant to convey. I agree completely that much of the premium organic crops receive gets passed right on through to inputs. When they pay more for their fertility, that eats up a large chunk of premium. Without that premium, they probably couldn’t operate. I agree completely with your “counter-theory.” All farmers are going to use the lowest cost inputs that work for them. That’s exactly why manure flows from the conventional farm to the organic farm.
      With that said, many organic farmers here are organic for financial reasons. Mostly it involves economies of scale. I was involved in a research program that studied dairy farms across the state of Wisconsin. It was common for the small organic dairy farmers to say that they moved to organic because they were too small to remain profitable as conventional farmers. They would have had to scale up to continue as conventional, while the organic premium allowed them to continue at their existing size. That was also a frequent theme at the MOSES conference. Small-scale farms and gardens need some kind of niche to keep from operating at a loss. Organic provides that niche.

      #7. Those economics aren’t really an organic vs conventional issue. It’s more the reality that the vast majority of Americans aren’t interested in working long hours on the land. And they aren’t interested in spending 20-30% of their budget on food to support the small scale farmers. For those that do want to work on the land small-scale as well as those who want to spend the money to support them, the current organic framework works quite well. I have no issue with those that make that choice. My complaint is with those who insist that everyone must make the same choice.

      Thanks for the link to the blog, I’ll enjoy reading it as time permits.

  • theoldtechnite

    Chris, “Basically the same sort of reasons why small farmers once left Europe in their droves and moved to America. “, to quote. I was merely pointing out that most people back then were small farmers, so, just by random chance, the people leaving Europe back then, for whatever reason, would be mostly small farmers.

  • Thanks for those responses – certainly I’ve learned a few things, which I guess is all you can hope for in these blogosphere arguments. I’ve now posted some additional thoughts at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=486. Not my area of expertise, but my understanding was that coastal eutrophication is caused by both phosphate & nitrogen and is strongly correlated with nitrogen fertiliser application (Smil ‘Enriching The Earth’ p.192-3). Agree that much of this depends on choices over labour and household expenditure – but those are conditioned by government policies which are never the only ones possible or desirable. Regarding migration to the US, I don’t think it was ‘random chance’ that small farmers went, even if they were the majority.

  • Is green ammonia considered as a organic fertiliser? I have found this flowchart that shows you can produce ammonia using green electricty. But can we qualify this as a green alternative? Here is the flowchart. http://pureenergycentre.com/report-4-2-ammonia-decision-making-flowchart/ and in the other reports, they explain how to make ammonia ith green power, nitrogen generator, and a hydrogen electrolyzer. Very interesting.

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