Four Theses On Nitrogen

I’ve waded into a couple of debates on organic farming and nitrogen on other blog sites recently, as well as on my own – namely Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture site, and Biology Fortified, which seems to be another one of these ‘eco-pragmatist’ type websites that likes to pit ‘science’ against alternative agriculture. That’s surely a topic for another post, but for now I’ll stick to nitrogen.

The basic point of Andy McGuire’s article on Biology Fortified was that organic farmers in the US routinely use manure from non-organic farms, and so are free-riding on the synthetic nitrogen used in conventional farming while claiming to be ethically above it. It’s not so easy for organic farmers to use conventionally-sourced manure here in Europe, although there are still various routes by which synthetic nitrogen finds its way into organic farming.

I can only think of two major reasons why this matters. The first is that it’s hypocritical for organic farming to rely on products from a system that it opposes. Perhaps, but to my mind there’s an element of bad grace here. Organic farming has long upheld the importance of things like building soil organic matter and soil life, crop rotations and mixed pest control strategies – all things that were often ridiculed in the past in conventional approaches, but are now considered sound practice and incorporated into the conventional package. A little humility here, rather than appropriating organic methods and then rubbishing the movement wouldn’t go amiss. Maybe the root issue is the rather oppositional nature of debates in farming and the environment, the feeling that one’s own favoured solutions are clearly the best, and those who are obtuse enough to disagree must either be imbeciles or ideologues. Regrettably I must admit that I occasionally fall prey to this affectation. In any case, on that front the Biology Fortified folks fear the “organic PR machine” whereas for my part I fear the rather better resourced “biotech/sustainable intensification PR machine”. More on that another time. But I can’t help feeling this is an example of ethical posturing of the kind nicely ridiculed in Jeremy Hardy’s one liner “I see you’re not too socialist to wear shoes!” In an economy entirely wedded to cheap fossil fuel, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to run a viable business without dipping (rather literally) into the well. Is that hypocritical? No more so, I’d suggest, than disliking poverty without voluntarily surrendering all your money, or disliking centrally planned economies while relying on governments to orchestrate ‘free’ markets. Let us ditch ‘holier than thou’ pretensions on both sides and simply debate the best agricultural options for the future.

Which brings us to the second, and more important, reason. If organic farming has to rely on conventional farming for its fertility then it can never be anything more than a niche sector; it can’t aspire to become mainstream. Critics of organic farming like to catch it in a forked stick here – either it uses synthetic nitrogen secondarily through manure and succumbs to the free rider critique, or it builds biotic fertility onsite (as we do at Vallis Veg) and succumbs to the ‘inefficient land use’/‘can’t feed the world’ critique. This latter critique is one that I don’t really accept, as I shall now explain in my four theses on nitrogen.

Thesis 1. ‘All other things aren’t equal’ #1. If you have a field and you want to grow some wheat, for instance, you can either grow it on the whole field and spray it with bought-in synthetic fertiliser, or you can grow it on some of the field and build fertility on the rest of it with leys. All other things being equal, the former is more productive per unit area. But all other things aren’t necessarily equal. Conventional, extensive, arable cereal agriculture is mostly a labour-minimising not a productivity-maximising practice. Suppose you plant some trees, including some nitrogen-fixers, or develop some labour-intensive intercrops, or stack plants vertically, or collect hitherto unutilised vegetable wastes, or animal wastes, or human wastes, or integrate some chickens or fish and so on. Most of these things require more farmers per hectare: there are various ways in which human labour can substitute at least to some degree for bought in nitrogen. That’s good, right? The government is always saying that ‘creating jobs’ is a good thing…Besides which, behind the ‘labour-saving’ synthetic nitrogen there’s an implicit agricultural army of agricultural engineers, geologists, factory workers, salesmen etc etc. Maybe the issue is less about saving labour and more about what kinds of labour we implicitly value.

Thesis 2. ‘All other things aren’t equal’ #2. Or to put it another way, land area isn’t a technical limit. Mark Twain allegedly advised “Buy land, they ain’t making any more of it” and you read a lot of this sort of thing on websites like Biology Fortified. Darned pessimistic Malthusians, the lot of them! If it’s OK to be anti-Malthusian and claim that innovation always overcomes productivity limits, then why can’t organic farmers play the same game?  Maybe somebody will find a clover variety that doubles fixation rates. Or invent an infusion of biochar, comfrey and neem oil that quadruples the soil biota. Or maybe the ‘technical innovation’ will just be good old fashioned hard work. Or whatever…if the anti-Malthusians can claim there are no limits to future energy availability on the basis of expected future innovation then I say unto you that there are no limits to future land availability for organic farming either.

Thesis 3. ‘The meek rich shall inherit the earth’. Various figures are bandied about these days about how we need to produce 50% or 70% more food by 2050 without using more land, and that in this context organic farming is environmentally destructive because it would have to encroach on wilderness to achieve this level of productivity. I’ve not yet followed up on the provenance of such figures in detail, but they seem to be predicated on the notion that there will be greater per capita consumption in the future, particularly for land-hungry luxury products like meat, dairy and biofuels (see, for example, Laurance et al ‘Agricultural expansion and its impacts on tropical nature’ Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2013). I think there’s an implicit economic ideology underlying these figures which believes that the global poor have hitherto been denied the good life of western consumerism because they’ve been untouched by capitalist development, but as globalisation waves its magic wand they too will join the ranks of comfortable consumerism, so we’ll need an agriculture to match their demands without causing undue environmental degradation. I believe this implicit ideology to be empirically and ethically flawed in numerous respects that I’ll discuss in another post.  But an alternative would be to rein in on the nitrogen and the luxury land uses, apply more agricultural labour and share the harvest more equitably. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, if Britain lived on a diet of mostly wheat, potatoes, vegetables and a little meat from rough grassland – all grown organically with around 30% of cropped land down to leguminous leys – we could feed the current population entirely on home-grown produce with about 20% of our agricultural land left over. Likewise, worldwide the major cereals grown on about 30% of the total agricultural land area are sufficient to feed everyone. Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that we should abandon synthetic fertiliser and go down this route wholesale, but the point is there’s an awful lot of slack in global agriculture to exploit if we wish – and the fact that generally we don’t wish indicates that (no big surprise) the ‘we’ whose choices drive global land use are basically the wealthy. In this light, I see the 50/70% scare figure as, at best, a ‘let them eat cake’ perception amongst the wealthy who quaintly (or self-interestedly) think that someday everyone will be as rich as them. But alternative choices are available, particularly if we tackle excess biofuels, food waste and meat, as most organic farm organisations argue. Mark Lynas, in his notorious speech at the OFC last year, described such arguments as ‘simplistic’, before simplistically enthusing about high-yielding GM wheat as the answer. Actually, it’s a pretty well established argument in food policy, even if the politics of yanking the pollo fajitas off the plates of the wealthy in favour of frijoles refritos aren’t so simple. Fact is, we may want to produce 50% or 70% more food by 2050 but we don’t need to (and nor, as we learned from the Green Revolution, does producing more food mean that it necessarily gets to the people who most need it). If the over-fertilised and over-subsidised agricultures of the over-developed countries could stabilise their nitrogen habits, maybe we’d all be better off.

Thesis 4. ‘But an occasional joint never hurt anyone’. Let’s go with that last pharmacological metaphor. Notwithstanding the above, it might be asked what’s ultimately wrong with a bit of synthetic nitrogen. I guess my response would be probably not a lot, especially if it really is just a ‘bit’. I’ve never used the stuff myself, for much the same reason that I’ve rarely used other illicit substances – I fear the results will be so amazing I won’t be able to stop. But, to press the metaphor, I think it would be good if global agriculture used fertilisers more like prescription drugs – in carefully measured doses at the proper time and place – rather than shooting it up every Saturday night because it’s the easiest way to big ourselves up. Agricultural fertility is a difficult thing to get right, as I’ve argued before, but when more than 50% of the global nitrogen cycle is anthropogenic, when the waters surrounding many of the world’s major agricultural exporting areas are deadened with eutrophication, when the energy costs and GHG emissions of synthetic fertiliser start to mount, and when the poor farmers who could really benefit from the stuff don’t get a shout, then it seems to me that there are things about it we’re getting badly wrong. Even agronomists like Vaclav Smil and Kenneth Cassman who don’t have much time for organic farming seem to accept that getting nitrogen right in global agriculture is a major challenge whose solution is currently elusive. Maybe ‘just say no’ is a bit too simplistic a message for farmers when the pushers come with their nitrogen. How about ‘not for me today thanks, I don’t really need it – try again tomorrow’?

4 thoughts on “Four Theses On Nitrogen

  1. Ah, my favourite subject! I agree with everything you said even the synthetic fertiliser bit. The synthetic fertiliser production must be sustainable as well, though, or we’re back to square one. I’m glad you’re finally coming round to the idea of technological fixes….. 😉

    I am agonising over importing compost or manure into my allotment let alone synthetic fertilisers. I think I have done enough with my clovers, vetches, grass cuttings and comfrey last year. But I’m getting twitchy, the soil doesn’t look organicky. I did do a nitrogen test a couple of months ago and it looked ok, but god knows what it will be in the spring.

    The back garden is fully under 2 inches of sheet mulch, with a few buckets of compost on the boil and plenty of nitrogen fixing plants. The back garden gets all the kitchen scraps, bills, chip packets, free newspapers, charred wood from the stove, egg boxes, etc, so the home garden is – im sure of it – sustainable. The level of compost I have been making and applying compared to ground applied has to make it very fertile. The soil is very, very dark.

    Now my solutions aren’t grower solutions but if all urban spaces were maintained in the same way a lot of calories could be produced helping the effort to feed everybody.

    Do you think 30% ley is enough? What about drop off in other key nutrients apart from nitrogen? Do you have animals involved in your system?

  2. Now then Tom, don’t get all Graham Strouts on me – I’ve never opposed technological fixes! Agriculture and – still more – horticulture, are technological fixes par excellence. Though I’d have to say the jury is still out on whether they’re really such a grand idea. As I’ve argued before, humans have no option but to be techno fixers – the point, however, is to avoid assuming that all techno fixes are necessarily a good idea.

    In my humble opinion, you don’t need to agonise too much about importing fertility into your allotment. It’s not in short supply at the moment – though of course if you import it regularly how you do so does affect your ecological footprint. But importing it on agricultural scales – even on my micro-agricultural scale – does I think start to get a bit problematic.

    Yeah, I reckon a 30% ley is probably enough. But you’re right of course that you need to think about the other nutrients. I posted on our overall system a little while ago here: http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=448. Animals in the system? Yes – our compost toilets for one thing! And now that we’re moving onto the site I plan to be introducing more livestock to complement the veg growing. That does, however, introduce various other issues and problems. Phosphates are probably the next biggest issue – I hope that growing lots of buckwheat and making judicious use of human and animal manure will help. Plus all those pigeons coming after my brassicas probably help. Maybe we should go for the traditional solution and have a dovecote, so we can raid the phosphate from the surrounding fields…or will that lead to another hawkish post on Biology Fortified criticising organic farmers for their fertility free-riding doves?

  3. I agonise because i am experimenting with a sustainable closed loop system. I also intend to prove it, provide documentation and teach it to others, something the clever dicks with their PDCs should have done 30 years ago. Importing fertility from your neighbour robs your neighbour’s land of fertility. How does he replace it? Fossil fuels!

    • Well, I’m all in favour of agonisation in the name of science! Though proof is always a tricky concept…especially in gardening. I’m soon going to have to confess my sins on my own little experiment on that front. Agreed that importing your neighbour’s fertility isn’t good practice, though if we’re talking about dovecotes I think that argument starts getting a bit too purist for me…I’d think they spend some of their time in woodlands and parks, which can probably spare a bit of phosphate.

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