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Comparing Organic Fertilizers to their Synthetic Counterparts

small plants growing in soilWe can see plainly the dangers of the synthetic herbicides and synthetic pesticides discussed in our previous blog posts, but they can also be beneficial. Pesticides and herbicides spare crops from other organisms who would harm them before they are harvested, and fertilizers maximize their yield. This is all of great benefit to mankind.

What alternatives exist outside the scope of agrichemical intervention? Let’s compare organic fertilizers to their synthetic counterparts, and look at the Integrated Pest Management paradigm as an alternative to synthetic pesticides and herbicides. We will also look at crop rotation, which has the distinction of aiding in pest management and soil quality.

Organic fertilizers, by and large, take the form of discarded food byproducts (such as shell and bone) or animal waste products (such as guano and manure). These are used in conjunction with composted plant materials. This approach is inherently more sustainable and environmentally friendly than using phosphorus or nitrogen obtained through mining and petroleum drilling, and as an added benefit it keeps perfectly usable materials out of landfills. Organic fertilizers are admittedly less potent than their synthetic counterparts and take longer to be broken down into a form absorbable by crops, but they tend to be less toxic and more nourishing to microbes that live in the soil. This leads to improved soil structure which keeps land tenable for longer.

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) paradigm is not inherently organic but it intends to keep the use of toxins to an economically necessary minimum. A hallmark of this approach is a prioritization of pest management rather than pest eradication. A farmer using IPM will determine what level of pest presence on their land will not negatively interfere with their bottom line. Farmers using IPM carefully monitor levels of pest species and act in accordance with new data as it arises, rather than taking the “scorched earth” approach of mass-spraying herbicides and pesticides over all farmed land. The practices of IPM can be carried out on a conventional or organic farm. These practices include Biological Control, Cultural Control, and Physical Control.

Biological Control is the use of pests’ natural enemies to manage their numbers. Examples of this would be making their fields more attractive to bats, in order to combat destructive insects, or encouraging the presence of beneficial insects who kill harmful ones.

Cultural Control is the deliberate pairing of appropriate crops with the available land, and the optimization of said land to produce these crops. Rather than modifying soil acidity or nutrient profiles aggressively with chemical aids, as in conventional farming, crops are selected based on the existing properties of the farmland in question. Cultural Control also involves mediating the land through means such as re-irrigating as needed and “crop sanitation,” the removal of dead or infected plants. Soil is also fortified with microbes that either fight off fungus or enrich soil quality, as a way to supersede the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Physical Control is the utilization of physical or mechanical intervention to protect crops from harm. Examples of this would be using a trap to catch mice, using a stream of water to knock insects off of crops, or using a barrier to prevent herbivores such as deer from accessing crops.

As with organic fertilizers, these practices of Integrated Pest Management may not be as potent and do require regular monitoring and adjustment, but their advantages in terms of reducing the presence of toxins from our food and ecosystems are self-evident.

In our next and final installment, we will look at crop rotation as an alternative to monoculture and wrap up our series.

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