One More Reason To Eat Organic? We’re Running Out Of Fertilizer

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One More Reason To Eat Organic? We’re Running Out Of Fertilizer

One of the most frustrating aspects of the organic food “debate” is the fact that the conversation seems to be stuck debating whether organic food is more nutritionally dense than conventionally-grown food. So when studies come out showing that you won’t get more vitamins from eating organic, conventional growers use that to bash organic farming. They call it elitist, unnecessary, and even imply that organic consumers are… well, jerks.

The problem is that the question of whether or not you can get more vitamin C from an organic orange is completely irrelevant. Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no question that avoiding pesticides and herbicides is healthier than eating food coated in them.

On a larger scale, focusing the conversation almost entirely on individual choice and individual health also misses the mark. Whether or not organic food is that much healthier for consumers in the long run, there’s no question that organic farming is healthier for the planet.

Case in point? It turns out industrial farming is draining the soil of phosphorus — an essential nutrient necessary for agriculture and life itself. That’s not an exaggeration: human beings, like all other life on earth, depend on phosphorus to create healthy cells.

Throughout history, farmers traditionally maintained phosphorus-rich soil by composting plant waste and using manure fertilizer. In the mid-20th century, that all changed. We started mining phosphorus from the Earth itself and using chemical fertilizers instead. It’s not hard to understand why: just sprinkling a little phosphorus on your field is cheaper and a whole lot easier than composting.

There are just two problems with this approach. The first is that the large amounts of phosphorus aren’t completely absorbed by crops. It leaches into nearby waterways. It spreads into lakes and rivers. And once it’s there? It causes algal blooms that create dead zones in the water, devastating the local ecosystem.

The other obvious problem is that we’re running out of phosphorus to mine. And when the world starts to run out of cheap phosphorus in the coming decades, the world’s poorest people are going to starve.

The good news is we can avoid this catastrophe. It won’t be easy, but a combination of consuming less meat, reducing food waste, and shifting to farm techniques that conserve soil nutrients will help recycle phosphorus instead of wasting it. In the next couple of decades, agriculture will have to become more sustainable in order to survive.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that eating organic is elitist, trendy, or doesn’t make a difference… Let them know you’re just doing your part to help the rest of the planet.


Julie is an American writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She writes about green living, education politics, and the environment.

  • obi_donkenobi

    Excellent article, thanks! Go organic vegan, or at least nutritarian and save the planet!!

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      If we all go vegan Obi, we’ll end up using far more phosphorus fertilizer.

      • obi_donkenobi

        There are vegan and organic sources of phosphorous, such as soy husks or compost.

        • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

          You’re not a farmer, are you Obi?

          I mean you no disrespect, but while some plant material might contain more phosphorus than other plant material, all phosphorus for fertilizer comes from the same place: a mine.

          • obi_donkenobi

            No disrespect taken. I am not a farmer. I never said getting phosphorous from organic sources would be easy, but it is optimal, and if we as a species were truly intelligent, we would make it happen.

          • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

            You cannot get phosphorus from any “organic” source except for sewage, which is currently not allowed for use in food production.

            No plant, no animal, and no excretion from any animal, provides anywhere-near enough phosphorus for a viable crop. That’s why organic farmers get their phosphorus from the same place that conventional farmers do: from mined sources.

          • obi_donkenobi

            I don’t know if what you said was true (about organic farmers using mined phosphorous) – you’d have to provide a reference for that assertion. Even if true, how bad would it be? Presumably, non-organic farmers also get their phosphorous from mines, so if the non-organic farmers turned organic, wouldn’t it be a zero-net sum gain or loss? Here are several facts I have discovered in researching this 1) Your statement that phosphorous has no organic source isn’t quite true. (Ref. http://mcgearyorganics.com/organics/organic-fertilizers.html
            – a short read that shows organic fertilizers contain things like manure,
            seaweed, bone meal, etc.) 2) It may be that low or no additional phosphorous is needed for organic farming. (Ref. http://mcgearyorganics.com/organic-fertilizer/balance-elements.html.)

            I have no idea how accurate the references I just provided are, but it may be that the question of phosphorous isn’t quite the problem you’re making it out to be – maybe.

          • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

            All phosphorus is mined Obi. Ask any agronomist or P. Ag.
            If phosphorus ends up in a plant or an animal, or in the excretion of an animal, it still started out in a mine. All you’re doing is redistributing it, which might be commendable. But it won’t ever be enough to replace mined phosphorus.

  • Michael

    If I only eat animals that only eat plants, does that make me a vegetarian?

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    An excellent article Julie. But organic farmers use phosphorus that comes from the same source as the phosphorus that conventional farmers use. They just use it in a less-soluble form.