Synthetic vs. Organic Fertilizers 

21 March 2024 - // Features
Summer Felsen
Communication Trainee at REVOLVE

Europe’s transition to organic agriculture may not be as simple as we think. 

There is a story of a farmer who woke up every morning to see that more nutrient-rich soil had been deposited on his land during the night. He was baffled by this strange act of benevolence, and he suspected the culprit to be his neighbor. I cannot seem to remember how the rest of the story goes, but I do recall that the plot thickened.  

Alas, not many farmers are fortunate enough to receive gratuitous soil deposits on their land, and instead must replenish nutrients to their soil in other ways. The methods of applying fertilizer differ greatly and are affected by numerous factors, including geography, climate, personal preference, and accessibility. 

We now pay increased attention as to where our food is grown, who grew it, and whether the product is ‘inorganic’ or ‘organic.’ We compartmentalize the agricultural system into strict categories, where one side is ‘good,’ and the other is ‘bad.’ After all, this dogma is far easier to grasp – as opposed to the reality that the soils in which our food comes from are the most genetically diverse ecosystems on the planet, and where, in one tablespoon of soil, reside billions of microscopic cells containing 10,000 species of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and viruses that we simply cannot see with our bare eyes. So, we choose to purchase ‘organic’ bananas at the grocery store and yell at people on the internet who do not do the same. 

The necessity for fertilizer is simple: when crops are harvested, the soil loses valuable nutrients.

The necessity for fertilizer is simple: when crops are harvested, the soil loses valuable nutrients. Without fertilizer, it can take hundreds of years for topsoil to regain the proper amount of nutrients needed to be productive. However, an oversaturation or improper application of fertilizer can cause soil degradation and serious environmental implications. Whether using organic or conventional methods, it is imperative to thoroughly plan fertilizer application cycles that work with the seasons. Proper planning will allow greater yields, slower release of nutrients, and minimal agricultural runoff.

Why has conventional agriculture been dominant for decades?

Many people have internalized a fear of conventional agriculture, often due to misconstrued vernacular surrounding the health and environmental impacts of inorganic produce. Let us unpack the truth. 

Agriculture is about beating the odds. Ever since the first hunter-gatherer scared away a herd of deer that were nibbling on the same plant that they had a hankering for, we were beating the odds. We give desirable plants what they need to thrive while thwarting anything that could take these plants away from us, and modern farmers aim to do this as effectively as possible. Many farmers today perceive synthetic fertilizers as being the best way to beat the odds. 

So, when did conventional farming replace organic as the dominant agricultural method? 

For thousands of years, our agrarian ancestors fed themselves by working with nature’s nutrient cycles. Through trial and error, they learned the best ways to sustain soil fertility. However, what had been a circular process for centuries became a linear one by the mid-1800s; food transported from farms to cities was reduced into waste and subsequently dumped into rivers and landfills. Rapid urbanization and intensive farming systematically disrupted the previous nutrient patterns, and the combination of sewage accumulation in urban areas and soil exhaustion in farmland produced progressively weaker crops. Thus came the need for synthetic fertilizers. 

Many farmers today perceive synthetic fertilizers as being the best way to beat the odds. 

Synthetic fertilizers are designed to provide crops with the nutrients that they need. They offer readily available nutrients that plants can quickly absorb through their roots, making them more efficient and requiring smaller volumes compared to organic alternatives. As a result, upfront costs for conventional fertilizers are typically lower, and malnourished plants have increased chances for survival.  

It is true that, if applied negligently, conventional fertilizers can easily oversaturate soil with nutrients, causing agricultural run-off and groundwater contamination as the plants cannot filter all the nutrients. However, when applied in proper quantities, synthetic nutrients will achieve predictable results and foster strong and vigorous plants.  

Crop rotation is an integral component of conventional farming that helps the soil remain healthy and ridden from disease. Different plants uptake different nutrients. Therefore, crop rotation prevents the soil from being depleted of all its nutrients. As a result, conventional farms trump organic farms in terms of crop diversity and yield because they can supplement their soil with nutrients quicker, thus allowing more freedom for specialization and greater nutrient diversity. Furthermore, synthetics allow for soil to be replenished with specific nutrients if there is a deficiency.  

Farmer Tilling Land. Photo: Pixabay

Nevertheless, Europe is experiencing increased restrictions on inorganic farming to drastically reduce the quantity of synthetic fertilizer in our soil.  

Why is the European Union pushing for organic practices? 

In 2021, the European Commission adopted an action plan to reinforce its target of transforming at least 25% of the European Union’s (EU) agricultural land into organic land, as outlined in the Farm to Fork Strategy within the EU Green Deal (EGD). The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy ultimately aims to establish a food system that could help mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts, reverse the loss of biodiversity, ensure food security, and foster competitiveness in the EU supply sector. The EU is pursuing these ambitions by passing numerous legislative acts and providing tools for newly established organic farmers by offering certifications, conversion assistance, expert legal advice, and incentives such as the annual EU Organic Awards.  

In Europe and many other places around the world, organic farming is regarded as a knowledge-intensive, rather than input-intensive, method of agriculture, and the EU uses careful observations and practical data to support their pro-organics policies.  

Organic farming can also serve as the pathway for a circular economy, an integral component of the EGD. 

The European Commission acknowledges that when applied in the proper quantity, organic fertilizers ultimately improve soil health by increasing the quantity of microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms break down the organic nutrients that plants can use, thus improving soil structure, nutrient availability, and microbial activity. Healthier soil allows for greater water-holding capacity and increases the mobility of air and water through the soil, promoting deeper root growth, minimal soil erosion, and positive environmental impacts.  

Organic farming can also serve as the pathway for a circular economy, an integral component of the EGD. Organic fertilizer products recover wastes that were already created in our food systems, such as animal-based manure and compost from plant sources, and they circulate these wastes to propagate new agricultural growth.  

Hasler Iglesias Yanez, Environmental R&D Researcher at CETENMA and partner for the FER-PLAY EU project on soils, indicated that “organic fertilizers and circular wastes should have been the first steps in the transition to a circular economy.” Yanez maintains that “when designing the food system, we should consider longevity,” and circular fertilization from organic waste is the best way to do so. All living organisms create waste inevitably, and organic farming allows us to harness these wastes to become functional and effective.  

A significant advantage of circular fertilizers is that they can be locally sourced. Every region has its own geographic characteristics and different wastes to be utilized, and when soil is not dependent on a foreign fertilizer, farmers can leverage the materials that already exist and thrive in that region.  

Agroecology is a circular value that many organic farmers embrace. Alfred Grand, owner of Grand Farms, in Austria, is particularly keen on biomimicry, which is the process of mimicking natural processes, systems, and structures to create sustainable solutions, as well as agroforestry and vermicomposting

By “using the earth as a role model,” Alfred strives to create organic production systems that are equally environmentally friendly as they are agriculturally prosperous, demonstrating how food production and nature can better align.  

Many of the EU’s efforts to support organic agriculture aim to neutralize and improve several of the environmental problems that emerged from conventional practices. When too much chemical fertilizer is applied, the soil is starved of microorganisms, and its capacity to retain water is lost, forcing the soil to become dependent on chemical additives. Many critics of conventional agriculture also argue that synthetic fertilizers abuse the natural nitrogen cycle, thus creating a feedback loop of soil, water, and atmospheric degradation. 

Farmer on the Field. Photo: Jvalenciazz Jhon / Pexels

A large proportion of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers are manufactured by the Haber-Bosch Process, a century-old method that relies on intensive fossil gas for production. Furthermore, the synthetic fertilizer industry is dangerously consolidated and under-regulated, meaning that only a handful of companies control about 75% of the market today. This monopolization results in higher prices for farmers, and exponentially greater revenues for fertilizer suppliers.  

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that organic farming also has its imperfections. Instances of lower yields under organic farming could result in the need for greater land mass cultivation, proliferated pesticide and fertilizer application, and increased labor intensity.  

How we can make farming more pragmatic and good for the soil 

So, is Europe’s gradual transition to organic farming the best way to move forward? The answer is not so simple.  

Karen Thorsted Hamann, Managing Director and Senior Researcher at the Institute for Food Studies & Agro Industrial Development (IFAU) and MarginUp! EU project, expressed her concern for the recent rise in strict agricultural regulations. Hamann, with a specialization in Danish agricultural systems, illustrates the complexity of the matter by drawing attention to Denmark’s deteriorating wheat production as a result of government-imposed nitrogen restrictions.  

She cautioned that “if synthetic fertilizers were to be eliminated, crop yields would decline dramatically” and the price of food would rise exponentially. As an example supporting Hamann’s alert, it took Sri Lanka, the first country to nationally ban synthetic fertilizer, only 6 months to reverse this policy in 2021. 

It is imperative to combine ecological concepts with farming principles to mitigate climate change, coexist with wildlife, and adapt agricultural techniques that best suit each local community. 

Yanez and Hamann, two experts in the field who hold differing opinions on the best fertilization method, both agree that soil health is of utmost importance, and they unanimously concur that fertilizer should be applied on a case-to-case basis. There are explicit contingencies that must be considered when applying fertilizer, and they must reflect the ideals of agroecology and regenerative agriculture. It is imperative to combine ecological concepts with farming principles to mitigate climate change, coexist with wildlife, and adapt agricultural techniques that best suit each local community. “There is no handbook for sustainable agriculture,” says Yanez. 

Farming methods should always be evolving to reflect new technology and the needs of our growing population. Combining conventional and organic methods can have positive impacts on soil health and fertility. For instance, cereal crops generally experience an increase in biodiversity but a loss in yield after a switch to organic farming, while non-cereal crops show no significant yield loss after the switch.  

With knowledge and data like this, farmers can determine which crops require additional nutrient deposits (to avoid the need for greater land cultivation) and which crops do not. As a result, biodiversity can increase without sacrificing yields.  

Agricultural production affects everybody (if it does not affect you, then maybe you should see a doctor – you might have scurvy). Therefore, it is in all our best interests to improve soil health. Not only does soil health affect the food we eat, but it also affects our planet altogether. 

Approximately 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are stored in topsoil, and soil serves as a filter that prevents atmospheric pollutants from entering groundwater. In addition to properly understanding the different agricultural methods, we can also mitigate soil crises by changing our behavior towards consumption and being more meaningful about what we buy and what we waste.  

Above all, we must listen to farmers, respect their expertise, and understand how we can work with nature rather than against it. “Nature has a solution to everything; we only have to find it,” sentences Grand.

Summer Felsen
Communication Trainee at REVOLVE

Featured in

Join Planet

We strive to communicate sustainability for a better world for the next generations.

Support us by becoming a member of REVOLVE Planet today.

Become a Member