The Organic Farming Myth by R. I. Throckmorton

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Robert Pavlis

I was searching for earthworm myths and stumbled upon this essay on the organic farming myth. It was published in the 1950’s or early 1960’s and the author was fighting back against myths being spread about synthetic fertilizer by the pro-organic movement. The contents really resonated with me because I have been battling the same myths for years. In fact some of the comments like “There is no evidence that mineral fertilizers, when applied at recommended rates, are injurious to soils, or that crops produced by the use of such materials are harmful to man or beast,” are identical to what I tell people in this blog and in my lectures. Ok, I don’t use the word “beast” but I think I will start using it.

It is amazing that after all this time, most gardeners still believe these myths.

I have included the complete article, without alterations, and thank Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University for posting it.

This article is old but the story has not changed. A 2009 review tells the same story.

The Organic Farming Myth by R. I. Throckmorton
The Organic Farming Myth by R. I. Throckmorton

In recent years there has grown up in this country a cult of misguided people who call themselves “organic farmers” and who would – if they could – destroy the chemical fertilizer industry on which so much of our agriculture depends.

These so-called organic farmers preach a strange, two-pronged doctrine compounded mainly of pure superstition and myth, with just enough half-truth, pseudo science and emotion thrown in to make their statements sound plausible to the uninformed.

One prong of their doctrine is a ruthless attack on chemical fertilizers, based on the preposterous supposition that such commercial plant foods “poison” the soil, destroy beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms, make crops more susceptible to attacks by insects and diseases, encourage weeds, and damage the health of livestock and humans who eat the crops so fertilized. It has been darkly hinted by the apostles of this organic farming creed that such things as decayed teeth, cancer, apoplexy and cirrhosis of the liver trace back to farmers’ use of chemicals.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

The positive side of their ridiculous dogma is a flat claim that organic matter alone is the answer to better crops and improved nutrition. All you have to do to grow perfect crops, insist these faddists, is to follow certain rituals involving composts and otherwise using organic matter in the soil. Such “organically farmed” crops are supposed to yield more, to be free of insects and diseases, and to have wonderful health-giving qualities for the animals or humans who consume them. If this were true, it would be impossible for us to produce our food requirements, because all of the manure, leaves, twigs grass clippings and crop residues available would fall far short of meeting the need.

In other words, these men who have appropriated use of the word organic are saying that all soil scientists are wrong and that they are right. They are, in effect, saying that farmers are wrong in using almost 20 million tons of commercial fertilizers a year. They are asking that painstaking research results of many generations be cast aside. These cultists apparently believe that by a play on words such as “natural”, “chemical” and “organic”, they have the key to an immortal truth. Strange as it may seem, those who attack the use of fertilizers have little or no reason to use them, as they usually aren’t making their living by farming. Many of them are folks who garden or farm for recreation.

Now, superstitions about soils and fads in nutrition aren’t new. They come and go. At first, when questions began coming to me about this one, I wasn’t disturbed. But as they persisted and the antifertilizer crusade mounted, I began to fear that such misinformation could damage the status of important agricultural research. One uninformed writer said in a letter that the experiment stations were so heavily subsidized by the fertilizer industry that research workers were not free to tell the truth. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and such statements should not go unchallenged.

What is behind the broad pro and con claims of the organic farmer ? The answer is simple and provable: Bunk.

Let’s clear up one point now. This cult has sought to appropriate a good word “organic”, and has twisted its meaning to cover a whole crazy doctrine. The facts are that organic matter in its true sense is an important component of the soil – but soil fertility and the kind of crops you grow on a soil are not determined by humus alone. Soil fertility is determined by the amount of active organic matter, the amount of available mineral nutrients, the activities of soil organisms, chemical activities in the soil solution and the physical condition of the soil.

Ever since we have had soil scientists, they have recognized the values of organic matter. The loss of soil humus through cultivation has long been a matter of concern. So the faddists have nothing new to offer on that score. Organic matter is often called “the life of the soil” because it supplies most of the food needs of the soil organisms which aid in changing nonavailable plant food materials into forms-that are available to the plants, and contains small quantities of practically all plant nutrients. It also is a soil conditioner, bringing about beneficial chemical and physical changes. It has a tremendous influence on the tilth of the soil, and on ability of soil to absorb and retain water.

The chemical role of organic matter is particularly important, as it is the storehouse for the reserve nitrogen supply. When soil nitrogen is not combined with organic matter it can be lost rapidly by leaching. Considerable phosphorus and small quantities of practically all other mineral elements in the soil are made available via the organic matter.

The antichemical-fertilizer doctrine makes a great point of the fact that plant food in organic matter is in “natural” form, while in chemical fertilizer it is “unnatural” and thus supposedly is harmful, if not downright poisonous. The logic of this escapes me. Science completely disproved the conclusion. The facts are that any plant foods, whether from organic matter, or from a bag of commercial fertilizer, necessarily came from Nature in the first place. Why is one more “natural” than another ? A Plant takes in a given nutrient in the same chemical form whether it came from organic matter, or from a bag of commercial fertilizer. The facts are that practically all plant-food elements carried by organic matter are not used in their organic form; they are changed by microorganisms to the simple chemical forms which the plants can use – the same form in which these elements become available to plants when applied as chemical fertilizers. For example, it is foolish to say that nitrogen in commercial fertilizer is “poisonous” while nitrogen from organic matter is beneficial. The basic nitrogen is the same in either case.

Although soil organic matter is important, it falls short of solving all soil-fertility needs. If we depended on it alone, our high yields would be out of the question. For example, muck soils contain as much as 20 to 50 per cent organic matter. According to the faddists” theories, you could do little to improve such soils. But they actually need fertilizer for efficient production. J. F. Davis, Michigan State College researcher, found in tests that the yield of wheat on unfertilized muck soils was 5.7 bushels an acre, while the yield on plots receiving the chemical phosphorus and potash was 29.2 bushels per acre. The yield of potatoes was increased from 97 bushels an acre with no treatment, to 697 with commercial fertilizer carrying phosphorus and potash. Cabbage yields were boosted by the same means from 1/2 ton to 27 tons.

Since soil and plant research began, scientists have been investigating the kinds of foods plants need and the forms in which they use them. It is known that at least 14 elements are vital to plant growth. Some such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are taken from the air by the plant’s chemistry. The plant gets from the soil solution such others as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, sulphur, iron and boron. Nature, the primary source of them all, hasn’t distributed these plant food through all soils in the amounts or mixtures required to get maximum production. Heavy cropping may take so much out of certain soils that deficiencies of some elements occur. It should be evident that the supply of these elements in a soil cannot be increased by raising crops and turning them under. The plant cannot manufacture them. Thus, when a soil is deficient, the most practical remedy is to apply the right kind of fertilizer.

Nitrogen, of course, is somewhat different. Certain organisms associated with legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, can extract this element from the air. When these legumes are grown and plowed under, the nitrogen in the soil may be increased. However, on most soils in the eastern half of the U.S. it is necessary to supply chemical plant foods, such as lime, phosphorus and potassium and to inoculate the seed, in order to produce successfully these nitrogen-fixing crops. It is an interesting side light that the nitrogen returned to the soil in this “natural” form by legumes, comes from the air; so does the nitrogen in certain kinds of chemical fertilizers. Learning to extract nitrogen from the air has given us unlimited potential supplies of the vital plant food.

Fertilizers produced chemically are not poisons and, therefore cannot poison the soil or the plant’s produce. There is no evidence that mineral fertilizers, when applied at recommended rates, are injurious to soils, or that crops produced by the use of such materials are harmful to man or beast. On the contrary, there is much scientific proof that the use of commercial fertilizers on deficient soils will increase the crops’ nutritive value.

Protein, important in building living tissue, is increased in corn, for example, by nitrogen fertilizers. Ralph W. Cummings a director of research at North Carolina State College, recently said “The protein content of corn grain grown with fertilizers containing synthetic nitrogen salts, has shown an increase over the unfertilized under practically all conditions.” In a large number of experiments, the protein content was increased approximately 3 per cent, that is, where the unfertilized corn had only 5.7 per cent protein, the fertilized averaged l0.4 per cent protein. “It is considered that such higher-protein corn is superior feed-stuff,” Cummings reported.

There is no evidence whatever to indicate that chemically fertilized plants are less nutritious than non-fertilized. Director W. M. Fifield of the Florida Experiment Station has said: “Not a single instance has been called to our attention where the use of chemicals in production or protection of our state’s crops or livestock has resulted in harmful effects on humans who have consumed them.”

If commercial fertilizers did poison the soil, one would expect their continued use to result in a material reduction in crop yields. This, however, has decidedly never been the case. These fertilizers have pointed the way to steadily increased yields of higher quality, more nutritious crops. At the Rothamsted Experiment Station, Harpenden, England, is an experiment with wheat which now has been running more than 100 years. One plot has received nothing but manure, applied at the rate of 14 tons per acre annually. Another has received nothing but chemical fertilizer. Despite the exceptionally heavy manure treatment, the average yield of the manures plot and the chemically fertilized plot has been about the same according to the last records available.

And while organic matter is particularly important in the soil in everyday farming, it has been proved that crops can be grown without soil, without any organic matter whatever, simply by supplying the plants with solutions containing the necessary nutrients in chemical form. In many tests various crops have been grown in pure glass sand – the sand providing only mechanical anchorage for the plant – by feeding solutions which contain the needed elements. This process is beyond the experimental stage. It has been applied to some extent commercially, and our military services have made use of this knowledge of the chemical requirements of plants to grow fresh vegetables for troops in areas where standard methods of farming are not feasible.

The claim of the antifertilizer cult that insects and diseases tend to ignore crops grown their “natural” way, and concentrate on chemically fertilized crops, I leave to your imagination. No reputable scientist has yet reported any such observation. But H.E. Myers, head, department of agronomy, Kansas State College, observed this spring on an experimental field in Southern Kansas that green bugs were exceedingly numerous on non-fertilized wheat, while only a few were present on adjoining wheat receiving nitrogen and phosphorus as chemical fertilizers.

The indictment that mineral fertilizers destroy earthworms and beneficial soil bacteria is without foundation. At the Rothamsted Experimental Station, it has been found that earthworms are just as numerous in the soil of the fertilized plots as in the unfertilized – but those in the fertilized area are larger and fatter. Many experiments in this country show that application of superphosphate to soils at rates commonly recommended will increase the population of beneficial soil bacteria. The use of mineral fertilizer will, in general, result in an increase of the organic matter of the soil and thus promote bacteria and earthworms. Organic matter is, of course, a by-product of plant growth; one of the quickest ways to increase it in a soil is to use chemical fertilizer to grow luxuriant green manure crops that will be turned back in the soil, or heavy crops that will leave a large residue of organic material. Without the use of chemical fertilizer it is impossible on some soils to grow legumes that are so essential to good soil management in humid sections. On the gray silt loam soils of South-eastern Kansas, farmers could not grow alfalfa successfully, even though they used large quantities of manure. Fertility experiments on these soils showed that over a 24-year period, the average annual yield of alfalfa on untreated land was only .59, of a ton per acre, while the addition of lime and superphosphate enabled the land to produce an average yield of 2.29, tons. On this land the lime and superphosphate treatment increased the average yield of wheat from 14.6 bushels per acre to 26.3 bushels. Although the purely organic manure was beneficial on these soils, manure alone could not solve the problem of a definite lack of lime and phosphorus.

To sum it up, there is nothing to substantiate the claims of the organic-farming cult. Mineral fertilizers, lime and organic matter all are essential in a sound fertility program. Chemical fertilizers stand between us and hunger.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

38 thoughts on “The Organic Farming Myth by R. I. Throckmorton”

  1. As someone involved on a small scale in vegetable growing, I’m intrigued by the claim here that adding ‘chemical’ fertiliser to an already manure-fertilised cabbage crop will result in a 5400% increase in yield. I find this a bizarre statistic, and entirely at odds with all my experience in growing plants. Far be it for me to interrupt your fun in name-calling and punching down on what is still a very small proportion of the world’s agricultural acreage and finance (you ignore entirely the ecological arguments about species loss and run-off poisoning of water systems from intensive pesticides, but I accept this doesn’t interest you), but this ‘fact’ sounds like bunk to me. One wouldnt be able to physically fit that many multiples of my current cabbage crop onto the space available- you’d have to build a multi-story field. It’s simply an absurd figure.

    • To understand the increase in yield you would need to look up the original study.
      “punching down on what is still a very small proportion of the world’s agricultural acreage” – I don’t write for agriculture. I write for gardeners and in the gardening world organic concepts are very prevalent.

      “you ignore entirely the ecological arguments about species loss and run-off poisoning of water systems” – did you miss the point that this is not my writing??? I am simply quoting someone else.

      But since you mention it, it is true that organic farming does take up much more land than conventional farming and therefore it is a bigger strain, proportionally, on species loss. Also, nutrient runoff is also a big problem with fertilization using manures. Manures also don’t do a good job of applying nutrients in the ratios needed, so much of what is applied is wasted.

      • “…a bigger strain, proportionately, on species loss”.
        An entirely false conclusion, as you must surely know. Whilst organic production does undoubtedly require a greater acreage for the same production, it allows a much greater species density and diversity than intensive agriculture. As I have said before, in Britain at least, farmland is by far the largest habitat for non-human life- wholly monocultural farmland means no habitat.
        As for my main point- are you accepting this absurd figure of a 5400% increase in cabbage yields on manured land? Simply saying “look up the original study”- when you have unquestioningly repeated the claim, which is in fact logically silly- is hardly a glowing example of sceptical scientific thinking. Seriously- 5400%? Explain to me how those cabbages will fit into Euclidian space.

        • Larger land use for organic means more natural land lost – that is the single largest threat to species diversity.

          I did not “accept” the data in the original article – I was only looking at the overall conclusions.

  2. This is a very strange choice in article.There is nothing recent or relevant and while commercial fertilizers may be unfairly demonized in some circumstances, they do obviously create problems and this rant is not helping anything (come on “cult” is a bit of a loaded term!). For someone that focuses on research, maybe figure out if this was published in “the 1950’s or early 1960’s” and use a fact since 2009. Why are you even putting this crap out there, I’m a soil scientist and the biogeochemical conditions associated with nutrient application absolutely make a difference to plant and soil health, you know that.

    • “maybe figure out if this was published in “the 1950’s or early 1960’s”” – why? The date is not important.

      “Why are you even putting this crap out there,” – Why? I guess you missed the point of the post entirely. The reason is to show that even back then scientists did not support many of the
      “Organic” myths that are still being promoted today.

      “the biogeochemical conditions associated with nutrient application absolutely make a difference to plant and soil health, you know that” – yes they do – so why is it that the Organic movement still ignores this fact?

  3. “I always thought of the organic movement as more of an over ambitious response to the catastrophic dangers inherent in a mismanaged agricultural system.”


    Folks know there’s a problem, and they kind of have an idea of where it lies, but they don’t have their facts straight. But so what?

    Conflating the two sides as equally guilty ignores the fact that one has serious commercial interests, political sway, and global leverage that the other simply does not. It’s not even close. There’s at least as much misinformation and failure coming from commercial ag and associated industry as from the so-called “organic” movement, but there’s a far bigger megaphone on the money side. That money is also actively inhibiting the regulation we need to prevent disasters like Maine’s PFAS horror show, the loss of our topsoil, mass eutrophication, and even the need to exert some influence over the fillers that get dumped into synthetic fertilizer.

    I admire and respect Robert for sharing his expertise, but he clearly has an axe to grind and regularly oversimplifies the issues so that he can dismiss uninformed posters he disagrees with rather then engage in the underlying issues. Is an element an element? Yes (unless it’s bound differently, which is often the case in soils). But the impacts and effects of plant nutrients from different sources are massively different.

    We are at the point of collapse in several related arenas, including mineral phosphate, sewage disposal, water availability and purity, carbon emissions, petropolitics, food quantity and substantially reduced nutritional quality, etc. These issues all collide at agriculture. It is beyond delusional to keep arguing that expensive-in-so-many-unaccounted-ways, fossil-fuel derived fertilizers are identical to “organic” sources that we are struggling to get rid of in our current systems without poisoning ourselves, our soils, waterways and oceans.

    We should be celebrating, rewarding and subsidizing anyone who is growing at least some of their own or their community’s food, whatever mistakes in understanding basic chemistry they may be making. These are the Victory Gardens for the 21st century, and desperately needed.

    • “one has serious commercial interests, political sway, and global leverage” – both sides have this.
      ” But the impacts and effects of plant nutrients from different sources are massively different.” – where is your proof of this???

      • Huh? If you need documentation of the political and environmental problems associated with fossil fuels (including the significant percentage of global production that goes to agriculture and synthetic fertilizers), I guess you could do worse than start with the IPCC report?

        • Robert, add to your reading Silent Spring, perhaps the most essential source that respectfully backs up the facts of what agriculture and related corporations of pharma and chemical industries continue to do that harms ecosystems and all life eventually within. Silent Spring inspired both the environmental and organic farming/gardening movements. If chemicals are so good, then why did nature not create them? Answering this question will lead to some revelations and surely bust some myths.

          • “If chemicals are so good, then why did nature not create them?” – nature did create them!!!

            The nutrients in chemical fertilizer are the same as in the soil.

          • Chemically it’s true that nutrients are nutrients at their base, of course. But the global impacts of their production are very different.

          • The global impact of synthetic fertilizers is both positive and negative. Sure there are impacts on the environment from any manufacturing process. But at the same time yield increased dramatically. Without synthetic fertilizer a large % of the population would be dead due to starvation.

            We can not support the current population with organic farming.

            Another point that became clear recently with Shri Lanka was that you simply can’t get enough organic material to replace synthetic fertilizer. And even if you could, organic fertilizer is much bulkier and transporting it adds a much bigger impact on the environment than synthetic fertilizer.

          • Some critical reviews of Silent Spring:

            “He is also right to say she was a “keen compiler of data” when writing her most famous work, “Silent Spring” (1962). But how she interpreted that data, and presented it to her public, is another matter.
            Multiple authors have now shown important instances where she misrepresented or reinterpreted her medical and scientific sources to fit them into her antipesticide and antiherbicide argument. Sadly, this unscientific use of science was common for bestselling environmentalist popularizers of her era, such as Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich.
            This too-little acknowledged aspect of Carson’s legacy remains a problem today. Most people who “mistrust science” can be distrustful only of what some intermediary (journalist, TV personality, author, blogger, politician, bureaucrat and, yes, scientist) told them the science is. When these popularizers sacrifice rigor for impact, as they are known to do, they are following in the footprints of a brilliant writer who in her last book came to abuse her talents”


            And the NY Times writes:

            “Carson used dubious statistics and anecdotes to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass.
            “She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass “biocide.”
            “She warned that one of the most common American birds, the robin, was “on the verge of extinction” – an especially odd claim given the large numbers of robins recorded in Audubon bird counts before her book.
            “Why were not all of the new poisons killing people? An important clue emerged in the 1980s when the biochemist Bruce Ames tested thousands of chemicals and found that natural compounds were as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones.
            “She cited scary figures showing a recent rise in deaths from cancer, but she did not consider one of the chief causes: fewer people were dying young from other diseases (including the malaria that persisted in the American South until DDT). When that longevity factor as well as the impact of smoking are removed, the cancer death rate was falling in the decade before “Silent Spring,” and it kept falling in the rest of the century.
            “Ames found that 99.99 percent of the carcinogens in our diet were natural, which does not mean that we are being poisoned by the natural pesticides in spinach and lettuce. We ingest most carcinogens, natural or synthetic, in such small quantities that they do not hurt us.
            “Carson did not urge an outright ban on DDT, but she tried to downplay its effectiveness against malaria and refused to acknowledge what it had accomplished. As Baldwin wrote, “No estimates are made of the countless lives that have been saved because of the destruction of insect vectors of disease.” He predicted correctly that people in poor countries would suffer from hunger and disease if they were denied the pesticides that had enabled wealthy nations to increase food production and eliminate scourges.”


            Thanks to the members of Garden Fundamentals FaceBook Group for finding these.

            I think I will skip reading this book.

  4. “To sum it up, there is nothing to substantiate the claims of the organic-farming cult.”

    An absolutist claim combined with an unsubstantiated ad-hominem. How deep can the irony get?

    After reading this polemic through to the end, I have to ask myself, what motivation does the author have for defending a practice which is so actively contributing to the destruction of our planet? Industrial agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry built around the over-exploitation of land, made possible only by a massive, continual influx of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers. To paint the organic farming movement as a radical cult hell-bent on driving the world into starvation is a farcical position.

    There are myriad studies showing the harmful effects of industrial fertilizers, whether it’s the greenhouse gases created by their manufacture, the reduction of microbial diversity in the soil, the buildup of mineral salts and heavy metals, the runoff contaminating our waterways… And then there’s industrial pesticides.

    The organic farming movement is a reaction to this destruction and degradation of our land, and the pursuit of short-term yields without consideration for the long-term consequences. Like any movement, it can’t be painted with a single brush. It’s made up of individuals, with competing and contradictory opinions throughout. The author’s attempt to tar and feather the organic farming movement via this straw man argument is perplexing at best, and at worst, deeply harmful to our collective efforts to build a more sustainable future.

    • “There are myriad studies showing the harmful effects of industrial fertilizers” – start looking for them. You will find that organic agriculture is just as harmful.

      “the reduction of microbial diversity in the soil” – you seem to be missing some important facts. The nutrients from synthetic and organic fertilizers are identical. If one causes harm so does the other. In fact microbe populations increase after fertilization.

      “The organic farming movement is a reaction to this destruction and degradation of our land” – It is true that some pro-organic people believe this. Unfortunately, their method of growing food has been shown to be at least as destructive if not more so than conventional agriculture. And organic agriculture can’t possible provide all the food we now produce, so it is not really an option for replacing conventi8onal agriculture.

      • “ least as destructive if not more so than conventional agriculture.”
        Please provide some links to the evidence for this, as it contradicts all my experience of the difference between intensive and organic farms. The biodiversity (starting with insect numbers) on the latter is vastly greater- that’s my anecdotal experience, but if you really do have serious evidence otherwise, it would be great to see it.
        The precipitous crash in insect numbers is a catastrophic situation, largely the result of intensively pesticide-reliant monocultures. This doesn’t seem to bother you at all, but it does bother a great many environmental scientists.

        • 1) This link supports my statement and contains further links to studies and reviews. This is not news.

          2) I never said anything about insects or pesticides – we were talking about fertilizer. Why change the subject instead of providing proof of your original claims?

          3) The reduction of insects is due to many factors – loss of habitat is a main one.

          • 1. The link you provide is talking about CO2 emissions. It’s interesting, but I didn’t mention CO2 emissions.
            2. “Why change the subject..?”
            Yes, my question exactly. On the other hand, my comment was a response to a generalised diatribe about the ‘fake cult’ of organic farming. You can’t meaningfully talk about organic farming, or any farming, without talking about pesticide use.
            3. “Loss of habitat”.
            Yes, that’s true. And since farmland, which is by far the largest use of land in the U.K. where I live, was in the past insect habitat, and under the most intensive methods no longer is, that rather makes me wonder how much you’ve bothered thinking this through. The crash in insect numbers isn’t caused by recent house building. It’s caused by farmland no longer being insect habitat.
            4. Returning to your link; it’s largely about the problem of organic’s need for a greater acreage, and the effect of this on emissions. This is of course a problem with regard to climate change, and the biggest issue it talks about is livestock production. Which brings me back to my previous point that meat production being the elephant in the room. It’s wildly inefficient with regard to land use and food production on a scale that makes the inefficiency of organic farming pale in comparison.
            I don’t know what the best solution is, but t certainly isn’t what we are currently doing.

          • Here are some relevant studies- sorry, I’m unable to ‘link’:
            On Science Direct, Biological Conservation- ‘Does Organic Farming Benefit Biodiversity?’ DG Hole, AJ Perkins et al, 2004
            Abstract quote; “…identifies a wide range of taxa, including birds, mammals, invertebrates and arable flora that benefit from organic management through increases in abundance and /or species richness.”
            Science Online, ‘Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming’ P Maeder, A Fliessbach et al, 2002
            Abstract quote: “We found that crop yields to be 20% lower in the organic systems, although input of fertiliser and energy was reduced by 34-53% and pesticide input by 97%. Enhanced soil fertility and higher biodiversity on organic plots may render these systems less dependent on external inputs.”
            Royal Society Publishing, ‘Benefits of Organic Farming to Biodiversity Vary Among Taxa” RJ Fuller, LR Norton et al, 2005
            Abstract quote; “Habitat extent, composition and management on organic farms was likely to favour higher levels of biodiversity….and tended to favour higher numbers of species and overall abundance across most taxa.”

          • I am missing your point? Yes I can farm organically and have more diversity, but that does not mean the farm is producing similar amounts of food? Or that it is efficient. Ot that a convesion to such systems would feed our population. And what is the comparison? I doubt these are compared to uncultivated land.

      • “start looking for them. You will find that organic agriculture is just as harmful.”

        It’s not my responsibility to provide the facts for your argument. If you’re going to claim that organic agriculture is as harmful to the environment as fossil-fueled industrial agriculture, you are responsible for providing supporting research.

        “The nutrients from synthetic and organic fertilizers are identical.”

        What do you mean by identical? Do you mean on an atomic level? If so, I would challenge you to shake a little pure Sodium over your french fries. You might find that when you isolate pure substances from natural compounds, the results are quite different.

        Nitrogen fertilizer produced by the Haber-Bosch process is delivered to crops in the form of Ammonium nitrate. You might remember Ammonium nitrate as the culprit behind an explosion that left over 7,000 people dead in Beirut. You may also note that no organic forms of nitrogen fertilizer present such a deadly hazard. That’s because, despite containing the “identical” nutrients, the nitrogen in organic fertilizers is bound up in a cellular matrix with hundreds of other organic compounds.

        Take, for example, blood meal, the most potent organic source of nitrogen. Blood meal contains minerals such as Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Chlorine, Sulfur, Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Iron, Selenium, Cobalt, and Molybdenum; vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B6, B12, Niacin, Folic Acid, Biotin and Choline, and a whole host of fatty acids and amino acids contained within the proteins and lipids of blood cells.

        The EPA does not recognize any health risks associated with blood meal, and you can spread it freely on your garden with your bare hands. By contrast, ammonium nitrate is a known skin, eye, and respiratory irritant. Blood meal is not water soluble; ammonium nitrate is a known water contaminant. These differences in quality come from differences in chemical structure.

        There’s no other way to put it; synthetic isolates are not identical to natural compounds. If we can at least agree on that, then we can begin to discuss the impacts of synthetic fertilizers on the environment in comparison to organic alternatives.

        • “What do you mean by identical? Do you mean on an atomic level?” – yes.
          “despite containing the “identical” nutrients, the nitrogen in organic fertilizers is bound up in a cellular matrix with hundreds of other organic compounds” – you need to learn a bit of chemistry.

  5. You give a great service to the non-scientific community. As a professional plant physiologist I find all your articles as extremely clear and well supported by the scientific literature. Your series of videos on vegetable gardening is superb.

  6. Some farmers say organic and chemicals combined { optimum ratio?}is productive. Please comment/advice thanks From Sri Lanka.a.

    • I’m a little confused by the level of your enthusiasm for this rant. For one thing, you say yourself elsewhere that fertiliser is not a ‘food’ and only needs to be added in exceptional circumstances, when an element is known to be lacking- you say you don’t use it on a regular basis. Yet intensive agriculture adds fertiliser as a matter of routine, with every sowing and later in the year. It utterly relies on chemical fertilisers.
      Secondly, (secondly, and consequently to this) the author states that “the loss of humus has long been a matter of concern” (to soil scientists), so the “faddists” have “nothing to add”. Since the loss of humus soil content can only be a consequence of current agricultural practices (ie, the ones being so aggressively defended here), that seems somewhat confused. “Concern” is one thing, doing something about it quite another.
      Thirdly, this statement that ‘chemical’ fertilisers are not “poisonous”; well, toxicity is a function of quantity, and I myself watched last year as my local river ecology collapsed due to excessive fertiliser runoff from intensive farms, something that happens on a regular basis around the country. Yes, manure runoff can be damaging too, but the scale of river (and sea) damage in the UK from intensive chemical products is huge.
      Fourthly, as always, the promoters of standard intensive methods have nothing to say about the decimation caused to wildlife and the wider ecosystem by modern pesticides- both accidentally, and deliberately.
      I’m not saying there’s an easy answer- organic farming has much lower yields, as we know, and there’s a vast population to feed (less meat would help of course, but that’s another unspeakable)- but the ecological catastrophe evolving around us needs more intelligent and coherent thinking than this.

  7. It seems to me that scientist still discover ‘things” about the soil The article mentions humus which Robert has written about does not really exist. Seems to me there is still lots to discover

    In the article it says:

    “Heavy cropping may take so much out of certain soils that deficiencies of some elements occur. It should be evident that the supply of these elements in a soil cannot be increased by raising crops and turning them under. The plant cannot manufacture them. Thus, when a soil is deficient, the most practical remedy is to apply the right kind of fertilizer.”

    So a plant can take minerals out of the soil that it cannot manufacture?
    That does not make sense to me
    People used to survive without synthetic fertilizers. Not as well and not so many of us But it is possible

    Our relationship with nature needs to be improved. We need to start revere and celebrate nature. The easy way of synthetic fertilizer is too easy It is a drug.

    • Most of the nutrients are elements or oxides of elements. Eg copper, magnesium, nitrogen, sulfur. Nothing other than atomic reactions can create elements.

      So a plant can never add elements or nutrients to soil unless it first takes them out of soil. It can’t make elements. Carbon and oxygen are also elements and plants can get those from air.

  8. I always thought of the organic movement as more of an over ambitious response to the catastrophic dangers inherent in a mismanaged agricultural system. One thing that all sides have in common is the ambition to place blame. Labeling, politicizing, monetizing, stereotyping, gouging that line in the sand. Each side holds essential pieces. Progress stops on the verge of a breakthrough. Each side remaining in limbo and unwilling to acknowledge that the essential components necessary to maintain the momentum toward a sustainable model DO NOT exist in the ideas of one side alone. It’s become a mental monoculture reflecting the insurmountable demands put on our current agricultural system. The sooner the far out, conscious, in touch hippie and the disciplined, consistent, frugal conservative can accept and respect one another’s ideas and leave the judgemental, egotistical bs at home, the sooner some lasting progress can be made. The answers won’t all be found in our individual confident and comfortable areas of expertise. Unless one is willing to consider and explore the seemingly preposterous and ridiculous ideas of our polar opposites then we as a race are doomed. In nature every extreme has a small but essential role which is required. Science illustrates this fact over and over. Our existence on this planet in the first place is a perfect example of the myriad of far flung components, some so unbelievably miniscule and seemingly insignificant yet so essential that we’d all still be spacedust otherwise. “Once in awhile you will get shone the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”. Jerry Garcia
    What seems to make perfect sense to me, rarely does to those more intelligent and academically inclined. What I am trying to say in all this is if I sound like a tool, i get written off as a tool. That’s the prob.
    Love your articles ✌️

  9. Schueler, Frederick W. 1989. Fertilizer in America: From Waste Recycling to Resource Exploitation (book review). Canadian Field-Naturalist 102(4):762. – now that the Field-Naturalist is online this is recoverable – the big thing about commercial fertilizer is that it’s a one-way system, rather than recycling from previous year’s crops, but the organic movement has been taken over by producers of products, and doesn’t seem to be as much about cycling nutrients as you’d think it would be –


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