Modern industrial agriculture relies heavily on fertilizers for crop production. The debate about the use of these fertilizers is a pressing one today, as many people are realizing the benefits of organic production and seeking growing methods that work with nature. The following list discusses many of the advantages and disadvantages of using agricultural fertilizers.
For the purposes of discussion in this article, the term “fertilizers” refers to synthetic chemical-based fertilizers, not organic fertilizers such as animal manure and compost.
Pros of using agricultural fertilizers
- Support plant growth
In general, chemical fertilizers contain the primary plant nutrients of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, in specific ratios that are tailored for the specific growth requirements of specific crops, such as corn or tomatoes.
These nutrients from fertilizers allow crops to be grown even in depleted soils because the plant’s basic nutritional requirements are being met.
- Provides a predictable and efficient source of nutrients
Manufactured fertilizers contain a predictable ratio of phosphorous, potassium, and nitrogen. These nutrients are dissolved and reach a plant’s cells quickly, right where they are needed. This nutrient consistency in fertilizers allows for efficient production on a commercial scale.
- Grow crops fast and big
Because fertilizers provide the primary nutrients needed for efficient plant growth, plants are able to grow more quickly and larger than if they weren’t being fed the fertilizers.
- Increase harvest yields
Because of the quick and efficient production, this increases harvest yields, making food affordable and reduces the costs of production.
- Inexpensive and easy to transport
Synthetic fertilizers are inexpensive to produce and purchase, and are easier to transport than organic soil amendments such as animal manure.
Cons of using agricultural fertilizers
- Fertilizers can actually “burn” people, plants, and the soil
Synthetic fertilizers contain high amounts of acidic chemicals lot of acid, and can therefore burn the skin negatively impact soil quality, and burn plants[sc:1].
- Fertilizers produce toxicity and pollution
In an all-too-common scenario, excessive nitrogen-rich fertilizers can runoff from farmland into water bodies when it rains, causing toxic algal blooms in rivers, lakes, and the ocean due to excessive nitrogen levels.
Fertilizers can also leach through soil into groundwater, making it very harmful to the surrounding environment.
- Results in depleted soils
Synthetic fertilizers typically only supply nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but do not supply other nutrients to the soil. Consequently, the soil that is used for growing crops given synthetic fertilizers is depleted over time, and the food crops themselves become nutritionally deficient[sc:2].
Over the last century, the soil in many regions has become so depleted that most of our food is now significantly deficient in many important nutrients, such as magnesium, because we are failing to replenish the soil with anything but nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium[sc:3].
- Interfere with natural soil ecology
In addition to the fact that heavy tillage style agriculture disrupts the delicate balance of soil ecology, the chemical fertilizers that are consistently applied to crops can stunt the growth of many beneficial soil organisms and can kill others (such as worms and beneficial fungi species) that are crucial for maintaining a long-term healthy soil structure. Without a healthy soil ecology and structure, moisture is not retained in the soil and this leads to a reduced resilience to drought.
Crop health also suffers because unhealthy soil leads to plants that are more vulnerable to disease and pests. These vulnerable plants are more dependent upon chemical inputs to maintain plant health[sc:4].
- Chemical fertilizers are like steroids for plants
Fertilizers provide nutrients that plants need to grow, but as a cost, plants can grow more quickly than what their roots can sustain. This can result in weak plants that are more vulnerable on their own to pests and diseases[sc:4].
While the biotech industry’s “solution” to crop pests and diseases is to create increasingly toxic pesticide chemicals and genetically altered versions of plants that are supposed to fend off these threats, the common sense solution is to get back to comprehensively nourishing the soil with organic matter that will promote truly healthy plant growth that will allow for greater natural resilience of plants.
The best approach to growing crops is to apply sustainable production methods, such as permaculture, that nourish the soil and its critical ecology that supports all of life. The long-term sustainability of our food production will be dependent upon how we treat the soil.
If we nourish and treat the soil well, it will reward us with delicious, nutrient-dense food that maintains greater resilience in the face of drought, pests, and disease.