Shock, horror–some organic farmers have been using synthetic fertiliser

posted in: Syndicated | 10

One problem with idealistic proposals to expand world acreage devoted to organic farming is there is not enough manure in the world to satisfy the fertiliser needs of organic farmers if they were to attempt to feed more than a few percent of the total number of people.

We don’t have enough nitrogen to feed the world in the natural sources of fertiliser that organic farmers are allowed by the “artificial” rules they have set for themselves. Attempts to expand acreage devoted to organic farming are severely restricted by the availability of essential nitrogen fertiliser components. We need extra synthetic fertiliser to do the job. We cannot rely on the organic approach for more than a modest fraction of the worlds food.

This fact of life has been well documented by Vaclav Smil  in several books, including Enriching the Earth: Fritz Harber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production MIT Press 2001.

Is it then surprising that some members of the organic food industry cheat when it comes to fertiliser, by using synthetic nitrogen to supplement their “organic” fertiliser manure?

This cheating has shown up in a recent report in the LA Times:

Organic fertilizer maker accused of using synthetic chemicals
Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. is indicted on 28 counts of mail fraud in connection with an alleged years-long scheme to dupe farmers and agriculture product distributors.
By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times
March 11, 2011

To organic farmers, Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. was the man with the golden manure: It was rich with Mother Nature’s finest waste, robust for the soil and cheap in price.

But to federal prosecutors in California, Nelson’s organic fertilizer empire had developed a stench.

On Thursday a federal grand jury indicted Nelson on 28 counts of mail fraud in connection with an alleged years-long scheme to dupe farmers and agriculture product distributors. The indictment accused Nelson, 57, of selling premium-priced liquid fertilizer touted as made from all-natural products such as fish meal and bird guano that instead was spiked with far cheaper synthetic chemicals.

The scheme, according to the federal indictment, enabled Nelson to become the largest purveyor of organic fertilizer to farmers in the western half of the U.S. and pull in at least $9 million in sales from 2003 to 2009.

This is the second indictment of an organic fertilizer producer in California in the last five months. It also has fueled fears among some farmers about possible contamination of their pristine fields and has raised questions about whether consumers bought produce that was billed as organic but may not have met federal organic requirements. Many consumers who opt to pay a premium for organic goods do so because they don’t want pesticides and synthetic chemicals to be used in the production of their food. (more at link)

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.