Analysis: Making sense of organic vs. inorganic gardening

Asian Pear in Rex's garden | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

OPINION – Making sense of the organic and inorganic approaches to gardening is inevitably a subjective matter. I grew up on a farm, and have been a gardener for many years, which impacts my viewpoint. There are many theories and practices being applied to gardening these days. But nearly everyone employs some practices from a variety of the approaches to gardening discussed in this article.

“Organic gardening,” like many terms today, is a bit deceitful in its characterization because it assumes that only it (organic gardening) employs the principles espoused. In fact, all gardening, agriculture in general, employs elements of the organic and inorganic.

Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.

Organic gardening has been oversold and under-delivered. And commercial agriculture has been unfairly demonized. Many false claims and accusations have been made with regard to this debate. I will touch on a few of the issues.

First, organic purists now declare that in order to be an “organic gardener,” you cannot use pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizer, or human waste.

Second, without commercial fertilizer, worldwide food production would be cut nearly in half; the ensuing result would be mass starvation.

Third, if you also eliminate chemical pesticides and herbicides, worldwide food production would fall by another 50 percent, relegating most of the world’s population to perpetual starvation.

Fourth, commercial fertilizer is not “synthetic” nor is it composed of “poisons” and “harmful” stuff; some argue otherwise.

Pesticides: If you don’t use some pesticides, peaches, pears, cherries, and apples will all be worm-filled. Dormant oil and other oils are effective pesticides, and they are not poison or harmful to humans or the environment.

Pesticides are designed with just enough poison to kill a tiny bug. Labels show the percentages of active ingredients, they are miniscule; meaning, you could likely drink the entire bottle and it would have no effect on a human being.

In the home garden, little if any pesticides are necessary, except on some fruit. No cool weather crops need pesticides (broccoli, onions, beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, etc). Melons and all cucurbits can be managed without pesticides. Corn can be protected with a little oil on the silk or a mild pesticide. With a little labor to keep your garden weed free, you can eliminate herbicides.

Fertilizer: Nitrogen is nitrogen, and it really does not matter where you get it. If you “religiously” refuse to use commercial fertilizer, then you must get it from some other source or accept small, spindly plant growth with reduced production.

Where it rains a lot, nitrogen is not an issue because the rain pulls nitrogen out of the air and provides adequate amounts.

The next best source of nitrogen is manure, cow, horse, chicken, turkey or any other animal manure. But most home gardeners do not have enough animals to provide enough nitrogen via manure for their own gardens, so it must be obtained elsewhere. Throughout most of Asia, human waste is the primary source of crop fertilizer.

Commercial fertilizer is often called “synthetic” fertilizer, but that is also a false characterization. There is nothing synthetic about commercial fertilizer. Nitrogen and phosphorus are organic. Nitrogen is everywhere. Potash is mined; it’s a naturally occurring mineral. Phosphate is mined; it is a naturally occurring element. And steer manure is loaded with both.

According to Chris Molnar in his article, The Dirt on Fertilizer – Organic vs. Synthetics, “Chemically, these nutrients are identical to nutrients derived from an organic source.”

Commercial fertilizer is also demonized by environmentalists because they say it leaches into the ground water, rivers and lakes, and poisons or contaminates them. It is true that all fertilizer leaches; but what is the difference between nitrogen leaching into them and rain dropping tons of nitrogen into them? Nitrogen is not a poison, and neither is phosphorous or potash, they are everywhere in the earth and they end up in the water whether man has anything to do with it or not.

Environmentalists are now attempting to demonize carbon. Carbon is essential to life; it is not a poison or a pollutant. Increase the amount of carbon in the air and all plants will have more growth, food crops will have greater production. Raise the overall temperature of the earth, and food production goes up, disease goes down, and people are healthier and happier.

Not too much goes to waste in today’s world: Almond hulls are made into feed for animals; cottonseed is processed for feed for dairy cattle; and the contents of sewer sludge is used in a variety of ways, including making commercial fertilizer: all, organic stuff.

Next week I will discuss the use of animal manure in gardening.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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1 Comment

  • Dag Falck May 18, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Here are some scientist quotes refuting what’s presented in the article re nitrogen fertilizer:

    From U of I studies by: R. L. Mulvaney, S. A. Khan, and T. R. Ellsworth
    “Half a century after the onset of input-intensive agriculture, many of the world’s most
    productive soils have been degraded and cereal production is increasingly exceeded by grain
    demand for a burgeoning human population. This dilemma warns of the critical need to
    reevaluate nitrogen fertilizer management and usage, and may ultimately require a transition
    toward agricultural diversification utilizing legume rotations, instead of further intensifying
    inputs under the auspices of another Green Revolution. An inexorable conclusion can be drawn:
    the prevailing system of agriculture does not provide the means to intensify food and fiber
    production without degrading the soil resource.”
    and: “Higher nitrogen rates may offer temporary relief, but the long-term
    consequences will be a further decline in soil productivity that increases the need for synthetic
    nitrogen fertilization, intensifies food insecurity, and exacerbates environmental degradation.”

    “Adding synthetic N is highly stimulatory to microbes that feed on it. These microbes then outcompete the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, making N from the atmosphere even less accessible to the crop.”
    Joel C. Reid
    Mesa Verde Resources

    Also wanted to mention that “synthetic” fertilizer is referring to the production method, and that it comes from petroleum sources. Most definitions of synthetic do not support that simply being “carbon based” qualifies as non-synthetic.

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