What a load of…..fertilizer

by Caroline Brown

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, (chemical, industrial, manufactured) fertilizers are bad, and there are more sustainable ways to add nutrients to your garden. I'll start by admitting that I have used chemically processed fertilizers before and I have several spray bottles in the basement. Mostly I used them because it's easier to just go out and buy something pre-formulated (translated: laziness) and also, I just didn't know (translated: ignorance). But I am turning over a new leaf (no pun intended), and I no longer intend to use them. In a nutshell, here's how they are made–decide for yourself.

All plants must have proper levels of three primary garden nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Artificial fertilizers are therefore composed primarily of these nutrients. When you see a number on a bag of fertilizer that looks like "10-10-10" or "8-4-1," that shows the percentage of N, P, & K (in that order) that's in that particular bag. (The rest is filler.)

Here's how chemical/fertilizer manufacturers obtain the three nutrients in processed fertilizers.

Nitrogen. Natural nitrogen is actually a gas found in the air. In commercial fertilizers, nitrogen is found in liquid or solid form, as either ammonia or ammonium nitrate. To get nitrogen out of the air and into a fertilizer bag or spray bottle, the gas is chemically processed with hydrogen found in natural gas to make ammonia. Ammonia is mixed with oxygen (oxydized) to create ammonium nitrate. The technology behind these processes was perfected in the early 1900's. Simultaneously, biologists began to understand more about the needs of plants. By the end of WWII, mass fertilizer production was in full force.

Because natural gas is used to process nitrogen, processed fertilizers use a tremendous amount of fossil fuels. In fact, one percent of the earth's total energy supply goes to making fertilizer-unbelievable! (So don't be surprised if the price of fertilizer goes up and the industry blame the energy crisis.)

Phosphorus. Phosphorus in fertilizer takes the form of phosphates. In nature, phosphorus is only found in phosphorus rock, which is mined in the U.S. in Florida, Tennessee, Utah, and Idaho.

Potassium. Potassium comes from mining potassium chloride rock or potash, which is primarily mined in Canada.

I won't go into a long screed about the bad affects of mining, but anybody who's ever seen a mine can't possibly think it's actually good for the earth (or the people who work in the mines). Mines wreck the earth and are a source of land, water, and air pollution. And also, the industrial processes that turn the mined minerals into usable fertilizer put nasty byproducts (like soot, sulfuric acid, industrial wastes, to name a few) into the environment.

Makes me feel not so good about the bottle of Scott's in the basement. I'm going to have to figure out how to properly dispose of it….it won't be going in my garden.

Just in case the manufacturing process of conventional fertilizers doesn't gross you out enough to quit using them, in a later post I'll try to explain how they screw up our environment.


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