Soil Association

Soaring prices and climate change expose fertilisers as environmentally unsustainable


Source: Soil Association

As oil and gas prices rise so does the price of artificial chemical fertilisers - the lynch-pin of industrial agriculture’s claims to be ‘efficient’. In the UK, the price of nitrogen fertiliser has doubled over the past year to around £330 per tonne. With oil currently at over $130 a barrel and with OPEC warning it could reach $200 by the end of the year, it has been suggested that fertilisers could hit £500 a tonne. At these prices, the claimed efficiency of fossil-fuel and fertiliser dependent industrial farming begins to collapse.

Robin Maynard, campaigns director at the Soil Association said, 'Rising oil and gas prices and the imperative of cutting greenhouse gases to curb climate change expose industrial agriculture’s dependency on artificial fertilisers as both economically and environmentally unsustainable. Farmers here in the UK and in developing countries would do better for themselves and the planet by shifting to sustainable organic farming that builds fertility using the Sun’s energy and Nature’s own fertiliser factory, clover.'

The environmental imperative of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80% across all sectors to curb dangerous climate change make intensive agriculture’s dependence on nitrogen fertiliser unsustainable:

  • The manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser is the main use of energy in agriculture; accounting for 37% of total energy use
    Globally, agriculture is the single largest source of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide - which is over 310 times more damaging than carbon dioxide
  • The fertiliser industry is the largest industrial user of natural gas in the EU
  • Each tonne of fertiliser made, gives off 6.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases
  • Fertiliser manufacture is also a major user of water, consuming 37 tonnes of water to make 1 tonne of nitrogen fertiliser.

Organic farming does not use artificial chemical fertilisers, instead building soil fertility through crop rotations and particularly the use of clover to fix nitrogen naturally from the atmosphere using the Sun’s energy and photosynthesis. Clover can fix 200 kg of nitrogen per hectare over a year. Average applications of N fertiliser across all arable and grassland are 110 kg/ha (arable = 150kg/ha; grassland = 77kg/ha).

Contrary to the claims of the agrochemical and GM lobby, many farmers in developing countries are increasing their yields and building fertility without expensive, environmentally damaging artificial fertilisers. Farmers in Ethiopia have achieved 5-fold increases in yields by supplementing traditional methods with modern organic techniques, such as composting.

Dr Tewolde Berhan Egziabher, Head of the Ethiopian Environment Agency said, 'In a harsh climate and a largely agricultural economy we need to rediscover an approach to agriculture which supports long-term food security and protects soil fertility. Organic farming is the way forward for Ethiopia, and it is also an approach which can help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by mechanised farming and the petrochemical inputs in richer countries.'

Dr Tewolde views are underpinned by Danish research presented to a UN Conference in 2007 that found that that in sub-Saharan Africa, a conversion of up to 50 per cent of agriculture to organic methods would be likely to increase food availability and decrease food import dependency. Organic yields can fall off to begin with, typically by only 10-15 per cent, but it brings greater benefits in that poor farmers no longer have to rely on expensive, imported fertilisers and pesticides. Other published research by the University of Michigan reviewing over 290 studies found that in developed countries, organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture. In developing countries, however, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms.

Commenting on the research Alexander Mueller, assistant director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said considering climate change will target the world’s poor and most vulnerable, 'a shift to organic agriculture could be beneficial.'

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