Artificial fertilisers

There is a fundamental nutritional difference between plants and people. Plants absorb their nutrients as inorganic chemicals (i.e., compounds that are not based on carbon). People absorb their nutrients as organic (i.e., carbon-based) chemicals, apart from water, salt, and iron.

Plants obtain their main nutrient from the atmosphere, in the form of carbon dioxide (which is usually regarded as an inorganic chemical in spite of its carbon), which they photosynthesise with water into carbohydrates. In addition, they obtain dissolved nutrients from the soil, mainly as phosphates, nitrates, and other salts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium, as well as various trace elements. These nutrients are in the form of inorganic chemicals.

Artificial fertilisers consist mainly of synthetically produced nitrate, sulphate, and phosphate compounds of ammonia, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. These chemicals occur naturally in soil, and most abundantly in the so-called 'rich' soils. But soil is like a bank account. We cannot take money out of it indefinitely. And, if we want to keep the account healthy, we must put money back into it. Any crop that is exported from a farm represents plant nutrients removed from the soil of that farm. If this process continues for too long, without replenishment, the soil will be depleted and it will eventually become unproductive.

Organic farmers argue that they can use farmyard manure and other biological waste, such as compost and green manure, in place of artificial fertilisers. (Micro-organisms decompose this waste into the basic plant nutrients). And if their own farms do not produce enough biological waste, they can obtain more from a neighbouring dairy, chicken, or pig farm, or from a sewage works. This is the rub. There is never enough biological waste to provide all the plant nutrients needed by all the crops necessary to feed everyone. On a global basis, biological wastes would provide only a small fraction of the total plant nutrients required. If we suddenly depended exclusively on biological wastes to nourish our crops, an estimated one billion people would die of starvation, and several billion more would suffer severe malnutrition.

We should also consider the nature of these artificial fertilisers. It is true that they are synthetically produced in chemical factories. But this, in itself, does not make them dangerous. They are chemical compounds that occur naturally in all fertile soils. And they represent absolutely normal plant nutrients, and the natural starting point for the biological production of plant food for people.

The main arguments against artificial fertilisers are environmental and they concern the contamination of ground water, lakes, and rivers from an excessive use of fertilisers. However, this is the fault of the farmer, not the fertiliser. Similar contamination can occur with an excessive use of organic manure also. Too heavy a reliance on artificial fertilisers can also damage the soil structure by reducing its organic content. This, again, is the fault of the farmer who is deliberately following non-sustainable agricultural practices in order to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. With good farming, the judicious use of artificial fertilisers is essential, beneficial, and allowing of sustainable agriculture. Some artificial fertilisers contain undesirable concentrations of toxic metals, such as cobalt. However, this should be a matter of government regulation.

There is also a palpable argument against the use of farmyard manure. This stems from the danger of Escherichia coli, a bacterium existing as numerous strains, some of which are responsible for diarrheal diseases that can occasionally be fatal if left untreated.

It follows that organic farmers have a weak case against artificial fertilisers. If we are to move towards organic farming on a global scale, we shall have to allow the use of artificial fertilisers.

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