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.

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.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • “…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.

        Reply
        • 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.

          Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • “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?

      Reply

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