Commentary

How to end our reliance on synthetic fertilizer – commentary 

April 25, 2022 5:39 am
Cows in front of a barn

“Returning to agricultural self-reliance won’t happen overnight, and it will not be easy.” (Scott Olson | Getty Images)

As the world’s farmers watch the cost of synthetic fertilizer continue to increase, and food prices shatter records kept by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the global food system so many of us have come to rely on is being stressed like never before. 

This upheaval in the global food system just demonstrates its inherent vulnerability. There is a more stable, resilient model being used in every corner of the United States. A growing number of farmers and ranchers have opted out of the high-input model of conventional agriculture and have reduced or eliminated costly inputs like synthetic fertilizers. They rely on biological sources of nitrogen, breaking free of an often-volatile global marketplace impacted by war and pandemic-related supply chain issues.

Farming without synthetic fertilizers is within reach for large-scale food producers, and it’s a requirement for certified organic farmers. Montana grain-grower Bob Quinn transitioned his family’s conventional farm to an organic one back in 1989. Quinn brought Khorasan wheat to the mainstream marketplace with his brand KAMUT. Without synthetic fertilizers, annual production of KAMUT brand wheat ranges at or above 50,000 acres. The organically grown product can be found on store shelves around the world in the form of breads, pasta, cereal, and even beer.

Data show consumer demand for certified organic and regeneratively produced foods continues to increase. The sale of organic products in the United States has grown more than 30 percent since 2016, and the number of organic producers is up almost 40 percent. Farmers who use regenerative methods, but might not be certified organic, are no doubt on the rise, too. Pair the consumer’s appetite for naturally grown, climate-smart products with the skyrocketing cost of synthetic fertilizer, and there is no better time in modern agriculture’s history to return to a more self-reliant system of farming. 

In Maryland, Ron Holter manages his 150-cow seasonal dairy on grass alone, with no supplementary grain. Holter’s dairy has been free of synthetic fertilizer since 1995. He uses a method called adaptive grazing, where multiple paddocks, frequent and flexible moves, and long paddock rest periods allow the grass to recover. This system maintains pasture productivity by building soil organic matter and increasing soil water infiltration. The grass grown for Holter’s cows relies on natural nitrogen fixation to maintain soil fertility and resiliency. 

Dave Brandt began cover cropping his Ohio corn and soybeans in 1978. Cover crops have maintained his cash-crop yields while reducing nitrogen fertilizer use by nearly 90 percent. Brandt credits cover crops with increasing soil microbial activity naturally, which provides nutrients to the food he grows and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity.

Transitioning to a production method that is not reliant on synthetic fertilizers can be accomplished strategically over three to five years. The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) has been helping farmers and ranchers make this transition through its ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program over the last 35 years. Our digital knowledge base of trusted and practical resources guides farmers as they learn to use cover crops, managed grazing, and alternative soil amendments that feed soil microorganisms to naturally boost renewable nitrogen levels needed to maintain long-term productivity. These are accessible tools that can result in reduced input costs, increased self-reliance, and more nutritious food grown at small and large scales, for local communities and national markets. 

Leading systems change is no small feat, especially within what seems like an intractable global food system. But change is underway, with a war on the other side of the world that is sending food and fertilizer costs skyrocketing, as well as from consumers who want better, healthier, and affordable products. Returning to agricultural self-reliance won’t happen overnight, and it will not be easy. But there are farmers successfully growing our food with this model of production right now. Farmers seeking self-reliance can replicate these methods across the patchwork quilt that is our agricultural landscape.

Now is the time to embrace systems change, to turn toward resilience and rebuild soil health using practices that supply nitrogen naturally to grow the foods and fibers we need. 

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Steve Thompson
Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson is the executive director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which has been working for a sustainable future since 1976. 

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