The Problem with Synthetic Fertilizers

Dec, 10, 2014

By Emelie Sandström:

Todayʼs agriculture looks very different from the systems we had in the past. In the beginning, we hunted animals and collected what we could find to eat. This then lead to our managing the animals and keeping them as livestock.

If you think about it and observe the natural eco-system, then it seems very logical to have animals and crops together. You put the livestock’s manure on the field and then feed the animal with feed from the field. This way, you return nutrients to the soil and have an effective, closed cycle.

Having animals and crops together has many benefits such as greater species diversity, which provides a resilient system to cope with disturbances like disease, and also creates higher yields. However, when synthetic fertilizers were introduced, farmers no longer needed to keep animals and crops together.

Synthetic fertilizers are a way of adding nutrients that plants need. One of the more important nutrients is nitrogen (in the form

Picture from http://www.organicfarmingblog.com
Picture from http://www.organicfarmingblog.com

of salts called ammonium and nitrate). The problem is that not all of the ammonium and nitrates are taken up by the crops in the field. You might think that these nutrients just stay in the ground until needed, but this is not the case. The nitrogen leaches into the groundwater that runs out into streams and lakes, and beneath the soil; then the small algae that live in water use this leached nitrogen as food. This means that the algae reproduce quicker, and the increased population takes up more space in the water. In the end, there are too many algae so there is no oxygen left, and the lakes or streams die. This is called eutrophication. (To read more about this issue: http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Synthetic-Fertilizers-Environmental- Risks_vq1404.htm) The consequence is no fish for you or me or the farm animals that eat fish meal. Which means less food for everyone.

Not only do these synthetic fertilizers cause eutrophication but they also create greenhouse gases, which keep the sun’s rays reflecting inside the atmosphere, making our planet warmer. The increased temperature will cause more famine and make it difficult to be a farmer in today’s third world countries because it will be too warm to grow anything.

So when synthetic fertilizers were introduced, farmers no longer needed animals and crops in the same place. This meant the farmers could specialize and be more effective, which may seem like a good thing. In fact, it is devastating in the long run. The good news is that we donʼt have to support the use of synthetic fertilizers.

But it comes at a price. Regulations do not allow organic produce to be grown using synthetic fertilizers. Organic = more sustainably produced food.


Emelie was born 1994 in Stockholm, Sweden where she grew up. She is currently living in Örebro, Sweden and studying environmental sciences focusing on food production and cooking for three years. In the end she will have a wide array of skills from how the Earth is impacted by food production to putting the food on the table in a luxurious and appealing way. Plans for the future include saving the world, graduating, travelling and doing her washing. Emelieʼs free-time is spent studying, visiting farmers markets with friends and watching her favourite TV-shows. She tries to live a low impact, green student life and wants inspire people around her to do the same and re-value the worth of good, organic food.

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