The Question Is, `Why Is Synthetic Nitrogen Burning Carbon?’

Written by Nick Woodyat

Time and time again the main topic of conversation is Nitrogen. Whether from the side of the regeneration farmer who wants to turn the tide from the toxic, expensive inputs, or from the conventional farmer who still believes in the phrase, `Nitrogen builds yield’.

It is my belief that it is the excessive use of Nitrogen that has burnt the life out of our soils much more than any piece of machinery, and it is the farmers’ ‘addiction’ that has allowed the chemical companies to have such a hold over the industry. The abuse of Nitrogen has led to the overuse of other chemicals which has in turn led to the rise of certain issues such as some of the monsters we struggle with today, Fusarium and Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, along with others. Science gives us a lot to be thankful for, right up to the time that science was hijacked by large corporations; thankfully, many farmers and consumers alike are now starting to wake up.

The Dutch sum up Nitrogen use well in this poignant saying `Nitrogen is good for the father but bad for the son’. From a consumer’s perspective with high Nitrogen under question, the problem is much worse than we realise as most of the salad crops that are bought are just bags of nitrate with little nutritional value, which puts the 5 a day regime into great doubt. It is now also not uncommon to come across issues in food quality such as oranges and black currants with zero vitamin C. University of California studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C within a week.

A 2004 study evaluated Department of Agriculture data where the researchers found statistically reliable declines for six nutrients; protein, calcium, potassium, iron and vitamins B2 and C. It has to be concluded that the broad evidence of nutritional decline in our food from intensive systems ran on high nitrogen and pesticides seems difficult to dismiss. What do we do about this? This problem started in the middle of the last century when farmers were told there was a new, easier way of growing more. The system of cover crops and manures went out of the window with the core principles of soil and plant health garnered before the Nitrogen boom of the 1920s, and was replaced by lorry loads of synthetic Nitrogen because it was cheap, but only a limited few had worked out the damage it was going to cause. Since then, we have been confidently strolling down the road of burning off all of the good stuff out of the soil, which led to not only a decline in soil itself but also of course, resulted in lower field health and quality, and yet rising costs.

I can’t argue that synthetic Nitrogen has helped feed the world, but at what cost?

From the outset, it has been assumed that synthetic Nitrogen would build organic carbon even though the truth was exactly the opposite, which is one reason for the global climate change that we are seeing. The thought was that the more Nitrogen you apply, the more growth you get, ergo the more carbon dioxide is pulled from the air. What is now being seen is that synthetic Nitrogen stimulates certain soil microbes which then feast on organic soil carbon, once that carbon is used up the bacteria alter their DNA to survive on ever increasing amounts of Nitrogen. As organic matter is used up, the soils natural ability to store organic Nitrogen runs out. A large amount of Nitrogen then leaches away, fouling ground water in the form of nitrates, and entering the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas with some 300 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. In turn, with its ability to store organic Nitrogen compromised, only one thing can help heavily fertilised farmland, keep cranking out monster yields: more additions of synthetic Nitrogen meaning onto the treadmill we go…

Almost from the start, farmers put far, far more Nitrogen onto the soil than the crops could utilise, meaning that we started very early on to pollute our water and seas, and tightening our soils pushing out the most important part of it, air. The trouble with synthetic Nitrogen is that it can complex with organic soil carbon, oxygen, and water. This leads to the soil tightening up pushing us to apply more and more, hence a favoured phrase of mine, ‘the moron (more-on) approach.’

A recent researched study has suggested that for every 1kg of Nitrogen that is applied to the soil that isn’t taken up by the plant, we lose 100kg of organic carbon. It is easy to see that intensive farming together with high doses of Nitrogen, with only around 50% efficiency, can already start to cause heavy damage to the environment and atmosphere, giving a large release of CO2 from our soil into greenhouse gasses.

Obviously, the excess usage of Nitrogen has not just meant higher Nitrogen bills, as I touch on above, we see compaction, erosion, lack of water holding capacity and a huge increase in the use of fertiliser. The reason we see so much growth following a Nitrogen application is that the plant sucks up loads of water leading to a massive drop in brix, which then leaves the plant open to pest and disease attack resulting in chemical applications to counteract these factors. Are you starting to see why some are so keen to hang onto this system? Universities and the World Health Organisation both agree that world agriculture, in the current system it is in, has only 60-100 harvests left, which should frighten anyone with children to death! Nitrogen use is the reason for this statement. 

How about this statement?

‘The use of artificial manure, particularly synthetic Nitrogen… does untold harm. The presence of additional combined Nitrogen in an easily assimilable form stimulates the growth of fungi and other organisms which, in the search for organic matter needed for energy and for building up microbial tissue, use up first the reserve of soil humus and then the more resistant organic matter which cements soil particles.’

This was by renowned soil biologist, Sir Albert Howard, in 1947, before we understood bacterial DNA and many of the other issues. Did we listen? Did we hell. I now go onto farms where the soil is held together with a polymer glue… Many of these farms have cereals and other crops growing in just the top 2-3cms soil, and a major Magnesium deficiency after just a few days of no rainfall. Good soil structure depends on a living soil and a living soil depends on not using excess amounts of Nitrogen. Water is becoming the new oil of the world and yet by using synthetic Nitrogen we are making the problem far worse than it needs to be, and yet the Nitrogen fixation goes on.

It is strange but many environmental organisations are fighting the damage that has been done to our oceans but ignoring where the problem came from in the first place. Take Chesapeake Bay for example. In 1970, Chesapeake Bay was found to contain one of the planet’s first identified marine dead zones, where waters were so depleted of oxygen that they were unable to support life. Today the Bay’s dead zones are estimated to kill 75,000 tons of bottom-dwelling clams and worms each year. Hypoxia, low oxygen conditions, results in part from large algal blooms, which are nourished by the runoff of farm waste (nutrient run off from the land). The runoff and pollution have many components that help contribute to the algal bloom, which is mainly fed by Phosphorus and Nitrogen. Run-off that we must not forget, has been paid for by the farmer. 

The RB209 says that 40-60% of the applied Nitrogen goes into the plant which means it can also be read as 40-60% of applied Nitrogen does not, yet we continue to load our soils. Of course, we must remember that run off comes from organic applications as well, so let’s ask why do we put on more than we need? We also must remember that much of the FYM and chicken muck contains copious amounts of synthetic Nitrogen.

I find it hard to accept, although resigned to it, that the synthetic Nitrogen that we use was first designed as an explosive when scientists found a way to convert inert N2 into Ammonia (NH3) which can be used to feed plants and blow things up. It is suggested that the manufacture of synthetic Nitrogen takes up 1% of the worlds energy which is stunning. We look at limiting factors when growing crops and suddenly Nitrogen was not a limiting factor. Very quickly we went to applying 10 million tons of synthetic Nitrogen to the soils in 1960, but the writing was on the wall. Every older farmer I talk to admits that they have to apply far more to get the same result as the soil dies out from under them. To back this up we used 100 million tonnes in 2005, an increase of 900%.

As we have seen this year (2020) yields are vital. So, the thought of reducing yield puts many farmers off which leads to them being stuck in the chemical trap. However, if we take small steps and are careful with how we move forward, this does not have to be the case.

A great example of this is Tim Parton, farm manager at Brewood Park Farm and a good client of mine. He is Sustainable Farmer of the Year; Arable Innovator of the Year and he also achieved Soil Farmer of the Year in 2017. This year, he is having as bad a year as everyone else following the wet winter and the dry spring, but it is as Tim says in that, ‘when you have good yields in most years your business can carry a bad one.’ This is how agriculture used to be before we lived on the financial edge. I have huge respect for Tim as he is passionate about soils but also passionate about getting viable yields in a sustainable way showing that it can be done, and now many other farmers are following this route.

We do have alternatives, some of which would be incorporating Humates, composts and balanced nutrition. We can invest into our own futures rather than a failed chemical experiment. Obviously, we (the regen boys) are depending on sensible governmental policies which take soil/water health into account as well as working with like minded people who have seen the light. If you are interested in keeping this conversation going, please get in touch: Lets build a better future together, looking into system approaches and most importantly, regeneration.

For those who would like further science behind these statements, there is a wealth of information online as it is all there for those that want to understand and to continue to develop.