Fertilizer Prices Are Soaring – and That’s an Opportunity to Promote More Sustainable Ways of Growing Crops

Yves here. As the sort who can barely keep houseplants alive, I’m reluctant to opine about farming. However, my understanding is that while more sustainable agriculture techniques can produce yields similar to those that rely on fertilizer, transitioning from fertilizer-based production to other approaches takes time. If so, it isn’t a remedy for this year’s food crisis, although it could help in due course.

By Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director, Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, Arizona State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Farmers are coping with a fertilizer crisis brought on by soaring fossil fuel prices and industry consolidation. The price of synthetic fertilizer has more than doubled since 2021, causing great stress in farm country.

This crunch is particularly tough on those who grow corn, which accounts for half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use. The National Corn Growers Association predicts that its members will spend 80% more in 2022 on synthetic fertilizers than they did in 2021. A recent study estimates that on average, this will represent US$128,000 in added costs per farm.

In response, the Biden administration announced a new grant program on March 11, 2022, “to support innovative American-made fertilizer to give U.S. farmers more choices in the marketplace.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture will invest $500 million to try to lower fertilizer costs by increasing production. But since this probably isn’t enough money to construct new fertilizer plants, it’s not clear how the money will be spent.

I direct the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and have held senior positions at the USDA, including serving as deputy secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2013. In my view, producing more synthetic fertilizer should not be the only answer to this serious challenge. The U.S. should also provide support for nature-based solutions, including farming practices that help farmers reduce or forgo synthetic fertilizers, and biological products that substitute for harsher chemical inputs.

Peas, beans and clover add nitrogen to soil naturally and can supplement or substitute for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Too Much Fertilizer in the Wrong Places

All plants need nutrients to grow, especially the “big three” macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Farmers can fertilize their fields by planting crops that add nitrogen to soil naturally or by applying animal manure and compost to soil.

Since World War II, however, farmers have relied mainly on manufactured synthetic fertilizers that contain various ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with secondary nutrients and micronutrients. That shift happened because manufacturers produced huge quantities of ammonium nitrate, the main ingredient in explosives, during the war; when the conflict ended, they switched to making nitrogen fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizers have greatly enhanced crop yields and are rightly credited with helping to feed the world. But they aren’t used evenly around the world. In poor regions like sub-Saharan Africa, too little fertilizer is available. In wealthier areas, abundant synthetic fertilizers have contributed to overapplication and serious environmental harm.

Excess fertilizer washes off of fields during storms and runs into rivers and lakes. There, it fertilizes huge blooms of algae that die and decompose, depleting oxygen in the water and creating “dead zones” that can’t support fish or other aquatic life. This process, eutrophication, is a major problem in the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and many other U.S. water bodies.

Excess nitrogen can also contaminate drinking water and threaten human health. And fertilizers, whether animal-sourced or synthetic, are a significant source of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Heavy nutrient runoff from farmlands produces chronic blooms of algae in Lake Erie, the smallest Great Lake by volume.NOAA

What’s Causing the Crisis

One reason U.S. fertilizer prices have spiked is that farmers are beholden to imports. COVID-19 disrupted supply chains, especially from China, a major fertilizer producer. And the war in Ukraine has cut off access to potash, an important potassium source, from Russia and Belarus.

Another factor is that the fertilizer industry is highly concentrated. There is little competition, so farmers have no choice but to buy fertilizer at the market price. Several U.S. state attorneys general have called on economists to study anti-competitive practices in the fertilizer industry.

The USDA is seeking information on competition and supply chain concerns in fertilizer markets with a public comment deadline of June 15, 2022. But out of 66 specific questions the department posed with this request, only one addresses what I believe is the key issue: “How might USDA better support modes of production that rely less on fertilizer, or support access to markets that may pay a premium for products relying on less fertilizer?”

Rethinking How to Grow Crops

I see an opportunity for the Biden administration to take a fresh look at biological products as substitutes for synthetic fertilizers. This category includes biofertilizers and bionutrients – natural materials that provide crop nutrition. Examples include microorganisms that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that plants can use, and fertilizers converted from manure, food and other plant and wood wastes.

Another category, biostimulants, comprises natural materials that enhance uptake of plant nutrients, reduce crop stress and increase crop growth and quality. Examples include algae and other plant extracts, microorganisms and humic acids – complex molecules produced naturally in soil when organic material breaks down.

In the past, critics dismissed natural products like these as “snake oil,” with little scientific evidence to show that they worked. Now, however, most experts believe that while much remains to be learned, current biofertilizers “offer huge potential in terms of new and more sustainable crop management practices.”

Studies have demonstrated many benefits from these products. They include less need for fertilizer, larger crop yields, enhanced soil health and fewer carbon emissions.

Large synthetic fertilizer companies like Mosaic, OCP and Nutrien are distributing, acquiring or investing in these biological technologies. Agribusiness giant Bayer has partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks in a joint venture called Joyn whose mission is creating “sustainable ag biologicals for crop protection and fertility that meet or exceed the performance of their chemical counterparts.”

A hand spreads pellets and crushed rock over dirt.
A farmer spreads two types of organic fertilizers – bone meal pellets and rock phosphate – before planting spinach in Golden, Colo. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Offering More Choices

Panicked U.S. farmers facing daunting fertilizer prices are looking for options. In public comments on USDA’s fertilizer initiative, the Illinois Corn Growers Association urged the department to investigate why farmers apply fertilizers at levels higher than necessary, while others noted a shortage of agronomists sufficiently trained to guide farmers on how best to sustainably fertilize their crops.

I believe now is an opportune time for USDA to offer incentives for adopting biologicals, as well as practices that organic farmers use to replace synthetic fertilizers, such as crop rotation, composting and raising crops and livestock together. A first step would be to deploy technicians who can advise farmers about sustainable practices and biological products. The department recently announced a new $300 million initiative to help farmers transition to organic production; this is the right idea, but more help is needed.

The agency could also provide one-time payments to farmers in exchange for reducing their use of synthetic fertilizers, which would help to compensate them as they shift their production methods. In the longer term, I believe the USDA should develop new crop insurance tools to protect farmers from the risks of transitioning to more sustainable options. In my view, this kind of broad response would yield more value than a taxpayer-funded, status quo approach to synthetic fertilizers.

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  1. Polar Socialist

    We (as in humanity) have known how to do this for a few thousand years, we (as modern society) have know how to do this for a few decades.

    See anthropogenic Terra Preta of Amazon basin.

    1. Lex

      But the CO2 release from charring!!! It is a wonderful process and can even be replicated by application of bio char (essentially charcoal/carbon). That is seeing agricultural application at scale. I make my own for amending compost. It’s one downfall is that you have to charge it with biology/nutrients or it acts as a nutrient sink initially.

      1. Hickory

        Put the activated charcoal in a bucket and pee in it till it’s full. Leave for a few weeks as nutrients in urine enter the charcoal—> apply to soil! Works great.

      2. Grebo

        I have wondered about lining the bottom of the compost heap with biochar so it absorbs the compost tea. Then you’d mix it with the compost before applying it.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Any CO2 released from charring merely goes back into the same sky which the plants which are getting charred sucked it down from to begin with. So that CO2 is merely going around the carbon cycle. And whatever part of that carbon which remains behind as char also came from the skycarbon reserves overhead, which means it represents ” just that much” overhead skycarbon reduction.

        The net excess skycarbon comes from burning a million years worth of “ecochar” ( coal, gas and oil) in a year. Reduce that, and increase the amount of skycarbon re-suckdown, and we may in theory be able to reduce the amount of skycarbon hanging in the air all around us. Unless the whole permafrost and clathrates belch out their potential skycarbon first.

        If they do that, all we can do is stick our head in the freezer and kiss our ice goodbye.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Maybe given how long it took to form the coal , gas, and oil; we shouldn’t call it ” ecochar”.
          Maybe we should call it “geochar”. Or maybe ” ancient geochar”.

  2. Lex

    Yeah, not a quick fix. The “problem” with converting to organic is that plants are only able to uptake the macro (and micro) nutrients in essentially elemental form. Manure may have loads of nitrogen but without the soil biology to process it the nitrogen is unavailable to plants. Soil chemistry and biology is the foundation of organic growing; whereas so long as soil pH is acceptable for nutrient uptake the application of “chemical” fertilizers works.

    The problem is that soil biology, responsible for nutrient cycling, is relatively delicate. Tilling and leaving fields bare (like over the off season) is very damaging, especially to fungal systems. I don’t know if a transition is feasible at the scale of American agriculture on a timeline that makes a difference. Anything’s possible but we’re talking about remaking the whole system and the refashioning is undermined by the gov induced trend since the 90’s to make farms bigger and bigger (thanks, Billy!).

    And since “organic” has as much linguistic value as “Democrat” I won’t be holding my breath. Any initial push to “organic” is going to be heavily dependent on fuel intensive processing of livestock slaughter waste, but something has to be feed for the livestock. If this is the direction the US were to take it will require lots of government intervention and support. The short cut might be humates / humid acid, but that’s a Russian discovery so it’s probably a fairy tale ;)

    1. JohnA

      Tilling and leaving fields bare (like over the off season) is very damaging

      That is why organic farmers use cover crops between seasons.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Didn’t they use to use clover as a cover crop in the old days as it helped put nitrogen into the soil?

        1. jo6pac

          Yes clover can be used and should be used in orchards as weed control. When grew up SF Bay Area farmers used fava beans. They were planted in the late fall then plowed under in spring before the bean grew. It does 2 things compost and nitrogen. I use to do this in my garden only raise them to harvest the beans and then shrewd the plants and till back into the soil.
          That my story and I’m sticking to it;-)

      2. Lex

        Not just organic farmers. But the practice isn’t universal and while tilling a cover crop under is good from one perspective, tilling destroys fungal networks which generally take at least a year to regenerate. Most of these are annual crops, which form more relationships with bacteria than fungi but fungal structures are an important part of soil structure. No free lunches.

        1. Lexx

          Leaves are free. :^)

          Thoughts on leaves as mulch? As nitrogen sinks? Ability of any alternative to scale within maybe five years?

          We have five mature trees, two are maples. But when the fall winds blow, we get a potpourri of the neighborhood trees in our yard. Most we mow over underneath the trees out to their driplines, and as amendment to some problems areas in the lawn. The rest get sucked twice through the leafblower and worked into the top four inches of the raised beds. Add compost tea and cover with landscape cloth** for the winter. Come spring most of the leaf matter has broken down. The color of the soil gets a little richer every year. All we add is rock phosphate and bonemeal. Every year the plants look a little happier than the last.

          ‘In public comments on USDA’s fertilizer initiative, the Illinois Corn Growers Association urged the department to investigate why farmers apply fertilizers at levels higher than necessary, while others noted a shortage of agronomists sufficiently trained to guide farmers on how best to sustainably fertilize their crops.’

          In the back of my mind as I read I had pictures of the Dust Bowl running and some vague notions about the role the government took to help the Plains states, and maybe the past roles of the Grange halls. I recall changes in how farmers tilled was a hard sell at first. It took a crisis, loss of their land, and starvation. And how many still exist that are family owned/independent and not corporate?

          *Or the high spring winds in Colorado will carry 1/3 of it away. Hard lesson.

          1. juno mas

            a shortage of agronomists sufficiently trained to guide farmers on how best to sustainably fertilize their crops.

            And these agronomists need to have local knowledge of the soils and crops to be grown. The delicate balance of soil moisture, soil temp., soil oxygen, pH, etc. necessary for vibrant growth of soil bateria and plant root nutrient uptake is regional. (Tropical soils are very different than those in the mid-latitudes.)

            As for macro-nutrients (NPK), often it is the application of a proportionate balance of these nutrients that is wrong for optimal plant growth, and reduction of nutrient runoff (N). See the photo in the article showing hand application of “rock phosphate”. While phosphate is essential to plant growth (photosynthesis) it should not be applied randomly. Phosphorus is actually the “trigger” (limiting) element in photosynthetic growth. It needs to be carefully balanced with nitrogen for optimal plant growth.

    2. Mike

      Not to mention fertilizers allow us to grow food in dirt in addition to soil. See vast portions of the Midwest; west Kansas, colorado, North Dakota where topsoil layer is a mere couple inches and the rest is sand or clay.

      Our country won’t convert to more sustainable agriculture without the dismantling of big ag or long term pressures keeping natural gas high. This process in the article will simply require more farmers than our current state which is afforded a lot of energy via fossil fuels to reduce allocation of the population dedicate to ag. Wish I could find the chart but there is an inverse correlation between a countries per capita energy usage and the amount of workers in agriculture. The reason I am bringing this up is you can just reference the 3rd world for examples of organic farming, not necessarily sustainable, and see they could have 1/2 of their population devoted to agriculture.

      1. Jane

        I was just thinking the same.
        Sustainable ag requires many more people to be farmers. At least, farm workers.

        A very important point. A very obvious point. But one that most people, including our planners, miss.

        Another to me obvious but unmentioned point:
        The biggest unused potential source of manure to fertilize soils is human waste. We have removed it from the natural cycle of growth—for good reasons of public health. But it is still a wasted resource. Research should be directed toward reclaiming it for agriculture.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        What was the topsoil layer in these places up to the moment just before farming was begun? What was it up to the moment just before Haber-Bosch nitrogen was introduced into the system? Was the topsoil layer in these places always 2 inches, or was it more to begin with and then got reduced to 2 inches by erosion and oxidation of humus down to where 2 inches is what we are left with today?

        As an amateur layman I have to ask because i don’t really know for places like west Kansas, Colorado, North Dakota, etc.

        Did Gabe Brown start with 2 inches? He claims to have more than 2 inches now. If someone can debunk that they really should, so that we can start looking elsewhere for answers.

        1. Mike

          I don’t have specific facts or figures on either one but it’s a combination of being able to produce crops in areas we previously couldn’t and desertification which leads to that infamous dust bowl thingy which is still at the long term scale ongoing. To me private property rights makes it extremely difficult for small farmers to pick up and start over in an area where organic/sustainable farming could be practiced. There’s people out there trying to project desertification trends long term due to human activity but it’s difficult because there’s also Environmental forces at play as well. 19th century explorers referred to Nebraska as the great American desert… as for the human side there’s plenty of studies on top soil loss out there, in the US we have lost perhaps and entire foot of topsoil across the United States due to erosion of farmland. Plenty of ecologists out there trying to quantity topsoil degradation rates vs replenishment rates and most seem to agree that you can add it to the pile of limiting resources in the coming decades that will constrain our societal growth.

    3. Carolinian

      Thanks for the great comment and replies. Perhaps the situation could be helped if farmers concentrated on food, not ethanol.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If imports were banned of the kind of food which American farmers could grow, then American farmers could focus on food.

        If foreign countries “retaliated” in “kind”, this would be a good thing. And it would help destroy the Free Trade system in food, which would be a good outcome.

        1. Jane

          There is no reason for a country the size of the USA with so many different agricultural zones to import fruit from Chile or Canada. We really should be able to produce all of our own food. I have been astonished that for years the shallots for sale in the Stop & Shop have come from China. For the past few months there have been no shallots!! Now they are stocked again, this time from an American grower.

          All countries should focus on producing their own basic foodstuffs. Why are African nations importing wheat from Europe instead of focusing on developing internal markets and products made from their indigenous food crops such as millet and sorghum and sweet potatoes?

          That said, policies pushed by international finance agencies geared toward producing special commodities for export—such as Morocco producing fruit for France while having to purchase wheat from abroad—have severely reduced many countries’ food independence.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I somehow suspect that the African nations which are forced to import wheat from Europe are also forced to grow coffee, tea, vanilla, cut flowers, etc. FOR Europe. For example, the same Egypt which imports wheat also exports cotton. I almost betcha the two shipment streams cross eachother coming and going.

            Forcey Free Trade on the Corporate Globalonial Plantation.

    4. MT_Wild

      Tilling also plays a role in managing pest species. If you look at cereal grains in Australia, they’ve had to switch from no-till back to tilling due to the introduction of the heath snail in parts of the country. Tilling being one of the only economical ways to control the pest.

      Interestingly enough, the heath snail has also been introduced to the U.S., but has not yet had the same success it has had in Australia. It generally gets spread around the globe by shipments of high-end tile, but not too long ago stopped the shipment of a bunch of Mercedes-Benz. If it breaks-out it will single handedly cause major changes in ag production in affected areas.

      Expect the intersection of climate change and invasive species/pathogens to monkey wrench future adaptive farming efforts. In order to switch to sustainable agriculture nationally, we need functional government from the federal to the county level and agricultural production that isn’t solely driven by profit.


    5. drumlin woodchuckles

      Gabe Brown has already been long since doing no-till on 2,000 acres of his 5,000 acre operation.

      Gary Zimmer has already been long since doing some-till and mini-till on his 1,000 acre operation.

      So it is already being done and long since proven ” at scale” by one out of every 10,000 or so farmers.

      And Gary Shephard is doing his own versions of this in a working permaculture on his 200 acre operation, which is a smaller scale, but is showing what can be done. Would he make a living without selling books and speaking at conferences? I don’t know. Everyone can’t sell books and speak at conferences, so at some point the 200 acre permaculture-farm will have to show it can pencil out.

      ( Gabe Brown and Gary Zimmer also sell books and speak at conferences. But I believe they have already shown their operations pencil out. Gabe Brown in particular made a living for years before he came to the attention of others).

  3. The Rev Kev

    While being something of a Lethal Weapon myself as far as growing plants is concerned, I full agree that it is nothing less than vital to get away from the present model of industrial fertilizers and revert back to much more sustainable practices. Having said that, I am going to say that the Biden regime is not the one to do this. Just a little while ago I read how ‘The US government is quietly encouraging agricultural and shipping companies to buy and carry more Russian fertilizer.’ A problem is that shippers, banks and insurers have been treating Russian fertilizers as if they were radioactive as the US can punish them at a whim for breaking any sanctions so Biden is having to reassure these people that no, he is serious. The US really, really needs all that Russian, errr, Ruthenian fertilizer-


    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Anyone who is alive today is descended from people who were able to grow or find their own food long enough to reproduce. So the ancestral ability is in there if more recently acquired fears of killing plants can be overcome.

      Here is a book to begin overcoming the fear of killing plants with. Plants For The Purple Thumbed Gardener. I regret that I could only find links to Voldemortazon for this book.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Are you referring to various radionuclides which fellow-travel in/with many phosphate ores and phosphate rock?

        Or perchance the small amounts of various natural organic radionuclides naturally found in natural organic granite?

      2. RonR

        The phosphate rock from Idaho that is processed into fertilizer in Calgary contains uranium.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Natural organic uranium to go with that natural organic phosphate rock. Hopefully most of it is the 238 kind, all nice and pre-depleted.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      @The Rev Kev,

      If you have a real yard around your dwelling unit, such that you could plant plants there, perhaps you could get around the “Lethal Weapon to plants” problem by planting native Australian wild food-source plants and let them produce what small yield they will produce all on their own, as they have for millions of years.

      Here in America . . . what could I possibly know about Australian wild food plants?

      Maybe Doctor Yahoo knows something. Here is an aggregated bunch of images for “wild Australian food plants image” with an URL for each image so you can go url diving.

      And a slightly different choice of words can bring up a slightly different bunch of images, some perhaps truly not found in the set of images just above.
      ” Australian bush tucker image” . . .

      Perhaps some nurseries in your area might sell some of these food plants. And if you have any woodland or brushland a bird’s flight away from your place, perhaps you can trick the birds into bringing seeds of plants they like to your place.

      Here is something I read but have never tried. Wherever it is that you would like a line of birdie-choice plants to start growing, stretch a length of overhead wire between two posts for the birds to perch on the wire. Put a bird bath by each post. As birds start to come to the bird-baths ( maybe just to drink the water) and then perch on the wire, they will over time poo out any fruit-seeds they may have eaten previously in the woods or in someone elses yard. So over time you will get a line of birds’ choice plants starting to grow and some of them may be humanly edible too. If you want, you could even pre-improve the strip of soil under the length of the wire so that any bird poo seeds falling on it can grow even bigger and better than otherwise.

  4. gsinbe

    When reading about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I ran across an article that said some incredibly high % of fertilizer applied to corn (80-90% as I recall, but my memory isn’t infallible) was washed off into the Mississippi River. Maybe instead of going full-bore organic, farmer just need to learn how to use fertilizer more intelligently.

    1. Mike

      Standard ag tilling practices compressors the soil which promotes more run off after rain events. No-till can eliminate that but requires new equipment as well as high use of herbicides to kill cover crops which creates another set of problems. Otherwise there are big benefits to no-till but certainly is more expensive otherwise more people would be doing it.

    2. JohnA

      Yes, the process is called eutrophication and has been a big problem in the Baltic Sea as well.

      One problem with going organic, from previously non-organic land, is that it takes several years to ‘cleanse’ the land and get certification, during which time, the farmer is unable to charge a premium for products that are effectively organically farmed but cannot yet be officially labelled as such.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Some people have suggested that a farmer might change over one small portion of land at a time, so as to not incur unacceptable costs transitioning a whole operation all at once.

  5. Aleric

    Has anyone seen statistics on how much fertilizer is wasted on lawns? I wonder if banning that practice would free up resources for agriculture and improve water quality in urban/suburban areas.

    1. PKMKII

      The alternative to commercial fertilizers I’ve been using as of late for my outdoor potted plants and (admittedly tiny) lawn: fish tank water. The nitrogen cycle at play in the soil is also present in freshwater fish tanks. Fish waste produces ammonia, bacteria turns ammonia into nitrites and then nitrates. So the water ends up being a nutrient-rich blend of nitrogen and trace bits of uneaten fish foods and fish “manure,” all of which makes for happy flowers and vegetables.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Several municipal lawns right near where I live ( as well as our own co-op’s collective lawn space) receive zero inputted fertilizer or any other input. The only management they receive is periodic mowing. And they grow well enough.

      There are still suburbs which are dominated by the deeply false values of the loudest Kens, Barbies and Karens who live there, and demand that you have a lawn that looks like astroturf. Until the “hammock commandos” figure out how to beat the KBKs and their false-value standards down, the “hammock commandos” will be bullied into using lots of ChemLawn, Scott’s Weed n’Feed , Miracle Grow, and etc.

      If the Better GreenCulture community can beat the KBKs into submission about how a yard should look, the Better GreenCulture community can then turn the suburbs into dachaburbs and grow food and raggedy lawns for the lawn cuttings for mulch in the garden.

  6. Chas

    I’ve noticed that some dairy farmers around me seem to be planting corn without applying any fertilizer. I don’t think they will have corn “knee high by the fourth of July” but it will be interesting to see what happens to their crops by the end of the season. As for the Illinois Corn Growers Association wanting an investigation of why farmers apply too much nitrogen fertilizer, I’ve got an answer. Strange as it may seem, modern American farmers know little about soil and plant biology because they don’t need to know anymore. They rely on the fertilizer company “representatives” to tell them how much fertilizer to apply. The more fertilizer applied the more corporate profit.

  7. Arizona Slim

    A couple of my neighbors keep chickens. They’re great egg layers and they also excel at the production of shhhhhh.

    The husband is in charge of the household compost bin, and guess what he uses as a compost accelerator? If you guessed chicken shhhhhh, go to the head of the class.

    They use this shhhhhh-enhanced compost as garden fertilizer.

  8. Dave in Austin

    All the solutions to the nitrogen fertilizer problem require either more labor or crop rotation, which means higher prices and lower yields.

    That being said, every bit of fertilizer going into streams causing nitrification is a waste. The recent monitoring of all the major streams going into the Chesapeake Bay led to identifying the over-users and applying sanctions. This has led to better agricultural practices, lower costs and better water quality. Real progress. And of course every pound of meat we eat takes from, I think, 2 lbs of grain (chicken) to 9 lbs of grain (beef).

    But in the end “X people require Y food”. If parts of the world double the X they must either double the Y or import food to cover the deficit. And places where X is not growing increasing say: “Your decision, your problem; we like our meat”.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Gabe Brown reports that he doesn’t get lower yields. He reports that he often outyields his toxichem neighbors. And he reports doing less work. But since he produces better quality food, he can often charge higher prices for it anyway.

      Because he is not competing in the mainstream agribulk commodity sh!tfood market. Though when he has to sell in that market, he claims to be able to make a profit anyway because his costs are so much lower than his toxichem neighbors’ costs.

      If anyone can truthfully debunk all that, or any of it, we deserve to know.

  9. Nematode

    Lots of information on soil health, regenerative agriculture, no-till, permaculture, etc. on the internet.

    Very interesting videos by people like Elaine Ingham, Gabe Brown, and Mark Shepard.

    Books like “Lentil Underground,” “One Straw Revolution,” “Restoration Agriculture,”
    “Teaming with Microbes,” and “Growing a Revolution.”

    Tools for resilient agriculture (and better nutrition) are there. Standing in the way, of course, are the monopolistic corporations, sell-out government agencies, corrupt universities, and not the least,
    plain old human nature. (resistance to change, by framers themselves)

    It is time to realize that industrial agriculture is a failed experiment that has led to severe environmental
    destruction, while producing products lacking in essential nutrition.

    Individual buying decisions can be very important in changing this system. Citizens can inform themselves and demand better solutions from retailers, farmers, and goverenments.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If/when I retire and have total free time all day, I will watch Gabe Brown videos more than I can watch them now. I like how he pronounces every word clearly and how he talks slowly enough that I can keep up with him.

      A lot of the videos peat and repeat the same basic information over and over again. But you would have to watch all the videos to catch the unique things that only show up once and no more. For example, in one of his videos he made the semi-offhand comment that he was just as hypnotised as every other cattle grower was by the Corporate Mainstream Cattle Magazines and Establishment into trying to grow biggest individual prize-winning individual cattle animals. But then at some point he realized that as a business man, he had to think about how to achieve least cost and most profit per cow. And that led him to rebreed and reselect his herd for much smaller and tougher animals who could grow a profitable amount of meat on maximal biological inputs and minimal purchased inputs. Had I not watched that particular video, I would never have heard of that approach.

  10. IM Doc

    Let me add my 2 cents here – from the aspect of someone who has been doing this their whole life.

    I currently have an orchard of 70 fruit trees ( apples, crab apples, pears, plums, berries) and multiple large raised gardens, dozens of berry bushes of about 5 different species and 3 large greenhouses.

    Our family goal is to raise everything we eat with the exception of cow and pigs we get from our neighbors ( all organic or grass fed) and anything tropical like coffee and avocadoes, etc. Also wheat and corn have to be bought. We have our own chickens, turkeys and eggs galore. This is all on an acreage. We have 3 beehives and 4 mushroom boxes. We are successful in feeding ourselves. We have created our own ecosystem. Large pastures of wildflowers, hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and beneficial organisms. Earthworms everywhere.

    All that being said – this takes hours a day in the spring summer and fall of back breaking work. To me, this is the big deficit in understanding when we are talking about going off commercial fertilizer. It is going to upend the entire way we do our agriculture and will absolutely require much more human labor.

    A bit about fertilizer – NPK + organic. NOTHING organic leaves our property.

    Nitrogen – my kids and I spend the entire month of August harvesting cow patties from our neighbors ranch. They are all organic antibiotic free grass fed cattle. That manure is then composted and mixed in with all the chicken droppings. This is an enormous amount of work. But the nitrogen manure compost it produces is more than enough for our yearly needs.

    We also compost all of our household food waste – but this makes a different quality of nitrogen that some plants like, others not so much.

    Potassium – we burn wood in the fireplaces and burn all our weeds and other plants. Large amounts of pot-ash is produced. However, this too has to be processed before even thinking about placing it in the beds and greenhouses. Making usable potash chemicals is a skill that must be taught. It requires having stuff sit in the sun in water to make “tea” and knowing how to use the dregs correctly.

    Phosphorus – every bone in our house is kept. We then make stock from it by boiling it. You then cook it until they are bone dry ( it will make your house smell like an abattoir) and then crushed and grinded into powder. A little bit of this goes along way – but it is critical for fruit and berries. It is very important to state that while nitrogen in commercial fertilizer gets all the attention because of the natural gas component, there are severe issues with phosphorus coming down the pike. It will likely very much impact my kids generation. There is simply not enough places in the world where it is available in the quantities for commercial fertilizer. We will likely run out in the next generations. Recycling bones and things like egg shells are going to be way this is done in the future. Throwing your KFC out in the trash will soon be infeasible.

    Organics – are what make your plants have colors, fragrance and taste. When you supply the organic chemicals, your plant can concentrate on making fruit – in modern garden centers – this is FISH OIL – hideously expensive and impractical for large gardens. However, we use any carcass of fish, chicken, roadkill – whatever – and place in the beds. This is done year round.

    Crop rotation – is critical –

    We manage to make enough for our family – other than the wheat and tropicals as described above. We can and preserve all summer long.

    It is back breaking work – and most people are not interested in this at all. However, we may be soon in a position where we as a society have no choice. It is also something that is not intuitively obvious. Each kind of fruit or vegetable requires a completely different mixture of the above additives. I have my own kids and about 20 4H teenagers that I spend enormous amounts of time teaching. I think it is imperative that these skills not be lost.

    Our habits here are largely what keep us young feeling and healthy. Intense work and healthy eating. I am told all the time I look 15 or 20 years younger than what I actually am. I have no doubt why this is the case.

    1. Lexx

      Kunstler’s fictitious town of Union Grove stayed with me for a long time. What would it take to survive? Would surviving be enough? Would I want to under any circumstances? What kind of shape would I be in physically? Mentally? What skills could I bring to the table that a community might value enough to give me a spot in their town? As a couple, we have a lot of skills between us, most of them acquired out of necessity (we was po’). We engage in them because the results are better than what we could buy. Tastes better, feels better, looks better, made better, and will last long after we’re gone. It’s more work than most are willing to engage in but it’s infinitely more satisfying.

      My sense though is that we won’t want to survive the kind of future described in Kunstler’s little town or the one we discuss and fear here so often. We’re not hard, resilient or faithful. Useful but not valuable. For all our preparations I suspect survival will depend mostly on sheer luck. My money would be on ‘generalists’, tinkers, jacks of all trades with a gift for gab, gossip, and maybe plays a musical instrument.

  11. ghiggler

    My response, terse version:

    Can’t do much about high fertilizer prices in the short term, just reduce usage. It probably won’t be as bad as feared, and it’s not that we’re going to run out anytime soon.

    It may be possible in time to reduce N fertilization of fields by changing biology, or to make nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently, but that won’t happen quickly.

    PK will always have to be applied to fields.

    Building and maintaining healthy soils will be vital, but, you know, we have been working at that for a while and we’ve already made a difference. Still, there is more than we can do – over time

    Long-winded, boring version:

    re Too Much Fertilizer in the Wrong Places

    Using “fertilizer” as a generic term confuses the issue. Differentiating between N)itrogen on the one hand, and P)hosphate and K)alium (Potassium) on the other is important.

    As I have mentioned in previous comments in April and May, PK(S) atoms that crops have taken up from soil end up in the sea and need to be replaced in the soil. Mining PK, extracting S and transporting these to the farms as commercial fertilizer is the only real option at this time. Some variations are possible, but these are matters of small detail: for example, (organic) rock phosphate becomes available only over several years; commercial fertilizer phosphates sourced from rock phosphates are almost fully available in the year of application.

    N is a different matter. It’s everywhere in the air, so does not need to be mined, but it becomes bioavailable only with difficulty. The most consistent albeit slow source is lightning; it provides the extreme conditions which combine atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen and oxygen from rainwater to create nitrates which, with the rain, sink into the soil.

    Also, clover, alfalfa, legumes and some other crops can capture and convert nitrogen from the air, but only when properly inoculated with rhizobia bacteria. The plant usually houses them in root nodules and feeds them with sugars; the bacteria will take elemental nitrogen from the air, convert it to ammonia and release it to the plant. There it reacts with water to create nitrates which are used primarily to create proteins in leaves, roots and – if allowed to mature – concentrated in seeds.

    If your crop is clover or beans you are done, but if your end crop is, say, wheat, you work this cover crop into the soil. The nitrogen then becomes bioavailable in following years for the wheat or other crops.

    As should be clear, these processes are slow and somewhat inconsistent.

    Chemical nitrogen fertilizers start with atmospheric nitrogen and natural gas which are combined at high temperatures and pressures into ammonia. This can be injected directly into the soil as fertilizer, or be further processed into baggable fertilizers.

    Chemical nitrogen fertilizers are almost fully bioavailable in the year of application.

    A healthy soil will have a nutrient reserve from year to year. For example, soils under prairie will build N reserves sourced from lightning and very little of the PK disappears. Soils on the Great Plains were 6 feet deep, and were cropped for about four generations before the nutrient reserve was depleted and the soil lost its structure.

    Fertilizing at levels slightly higher than what is needed to replace the nutrients harvested is probably optimal. Over time nutrients in the residue are banked in the soil reserve and maintain a healthy soil structure.

    All this is a bit of a balancing act. If you overfertilize, and the growing conditions are excellent, you can get an extraordinary crop. The marginal increased cost of fertilizer gives a huge reward. The downside is that in normal years, or bad years. not all the nutrients are taken up by the plants, and if chemical fertilizers were used, their soluble, bioavailable nutrients can drain off the fields into the water with all the bad results: poisonous algal blooms, eutrophication, plant populations shift, and so on.

    This is the primary option if you don’t have soil, but only dirt as a supporting medium.

    It’s much better to have built up the nutrient reserve in your soil. This is not all bioavailable but cycles between available and unavailable factions over the course of a season. In an extraordinary year the available amounts are taken up by the plant rather than becoming unavailable again through normal soil activity. You still get the extraordinary crop, but without the cost of excess fertilizer and without pushing the cost of pollution onto society.

    re What’s Causing the Crisis

    COVID-19 disrupted supply chains are a clear contributor, but clarity. I presume the “China, a major fertilizer producer” reference is to nitrogen fertilizers. The USA is also a major producer, but my guess is that plant capacity is the main constraint. America is also a major producer of phosphates. Canada is the worlds biggest potash producer and has the largest potash reserves in the world. Nutrien will be increasing output this year and the development of the new BHP mine will be accelerated.

    So, on the one hand new supplies can and will enter the market. On the other, I believe that the world has been getting better at caring for its soils. I actually believe that a year with reduced fertilizer input may not have as bad an impact on food production as feared. To my mind weather issues will be the biggest factor determining this year’s harvest.

    re Rethinking How to Grow Crops

    The article sees

    an opportunity for the Biden administration to take a fresh look at biological products as substitutes for synthetic fertilizers. … Examples include microorganisms that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that plants can use, and fertilizers converted from manure, food and other plant and wood wastes.

    Leaving aside that this is too complex a matter for the Biden administration, I do see opportunities for “microorganisms that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into forms that plants can use,” For example, there is an odd variety of corn that has “roots” in the air that host bacteria that do the job.

    The upside is that nitrogen is everywhere. The downside is that the plants and the bacteria are specialized for each other, this issue has been studied for about a century, and there is nothing actual. Certainly this will not make a difference to nitrogen fertilizer use any time soon.

    PK flow is from the fields, to us directly or indirectly, and then through us flushed into the ocean. It may be that “fertilizers converted from manure, food and other plant and wood wastes” can slow this flow and “biostimulants” can make it more efficient, but this flow is inevitable. In the end, within 500 years or so, we will have to be able to extract PK from seawater for return to our fields as a man-made fertilizer. There is no getting around it. Remember, physics has laws, and they are laws which cannot be broken.

    re Offering More Choices

    Of the choices listed in the article, the only one that makes can make a difference this year or the next is to reduce fertilizer use, and not to panic about it. There are better things to panic about….

  12. Ken

    Confused. Didn’t Sri Lanka try going full organic and screw up its national agricultural yield?

  13. Clonal Antibody

    A sustainable technology that can be used is SRI (System of Rice Intensification) developed by a Jesuit priest in Madagascar, and being championed by Cornell University. It is applicable to crops other than rice, and has been producing record breaking yields.

  14. drumlin woodchuckles

    Maybe we could sometimes think of sky-nitrogen sucked down and fixed into plant-usable form by certain plant-hosted bacteria as “eco-fixed” nitrogen, because one has to have one’s agro-ecosystem in some kind of healthy order before it can support bio-fixation of nitrogen.

    And there are more plants and organisms than just legumes and rhizobia which can bio-fix nitrogen. I remember an article at Permaculture Reflections which I can’t find anywhere now and which may well have been destroyed as a site, meaning that anyone who didn’t read it will never ever get to see it ever ever again.

    So going on memory, here are some non-legumes it mentioned as being nitro-fixation hosts . . . autumn olive and its relatives, silver-berry, sea buckthorn, casuarina, black alder and maybe other alders. There are others which I can’t even remember.

    During the flood stage of paddy rice agriculture, a nitro-fixing floating duckweed-sized fern called azolla flourishes and when water is slowly released or reduced to ground level, masses of azolla remain behind to add their fixed nitrogen to the rice-soil.

    I read somewhere that 25% of the nitrogen bio-fixed in the tropics is bio-fixed by termites due to the cellulose-digesting protozoa they host inside their chewed-wood-fed bodies.

    Which partner in the algae-fungus parthership called “lichen” is fixing the nitrogen for both of them? I think it is the fungus.

    How do fruit flies grow their protein selves on decaying fruit, which contains near-zero nitrogen before it begins rotting? I think I read that some of the yeast and bacteria decaying the fruit fix their own nitrogen, which the fruit flies then ingest.

    Over a year ago, NaCap ran an article about the corn grown in a certain high-rainfall village in Oaxaca , Mexico. It produces runny-nose amounts of mucus around its aerial prop roots. That slime was recently discovered to feed nitro-fixing bacteria. ( When I say prop roots on my own corn doing a little of this, I assumed the gel was designed to protect the prop-root tips till they could reach the ground. I now wonder whether this root-snot production is a vestige of that Oaxaca corn’s talent.) Anyway , here is the link.

    And also free-living azotobacter and actinomycetes in a bio-healthy soil fix nitrogen their own selves.

    So many sources of nitrogen bio-fixation are available to the non-petro non-cancer-juice eco-minded farmer, once he/she gets his/her farmland bio-system in clean eco-friendly order.

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