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Recently I've read an article stating that easy soluble mineral ferilizers are not allowed in organic farming (with a few exceptions).

By that I mean that there are some laws that restrict you from having a "organic farmer" certificate if you use mineral fertilizer.

Why is that? What is so bad about using such nutrients? I understand that you are not adding any organic matter to the soil, which is beneficial to the soil organisms, but if you already have a 20% organic matter in your soil does it even matter?

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  • I think this question belongs in "Mythology" . When I skimmed the FDA Rules for marking something "organic" ; the last section said something like " For small farms , under 320 acres, You can ignore all these rules and use your own discretion." Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:45
  • @blacksmith37 This sounds more like a myth! Can you provide a citation?
    – Nic
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 18:41
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    @blacksmith37 Maybe we should take this to chat. What the heck is INORGANIC food? The definitions of Organic are all over the page or over the top and thus not being defined well at all. I haven't recognized the word Organic nor have I cared about the word Natural. I don't believe any label using those two words or any meaning they might portray. I am very knowledgeable about fitness and nutrition...from decades ago. You gotta explain 'inorganic' food to me!
    – stormy
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 19:13
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    I don't think the organic movement is necessarily about good vs. bad, but rather natural vs. synthetic. Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 9:27
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    I was on committees that wrote standards for steel components for USA which are the defacto international standards like ISO. I looked at the FDA "organic" standard: It has a lot of words but is not effective. One section ( 6505 d. )permits farmers with less less than $ 5000 to not comply and still mark "organic" . Meaning one is relying on the sellers you see at a farmers market to count every cent they make so they can report it to the IRS and pay taxes on it . I doubt that happens . And , with a family farm ; is a total of $10,000, 15,000, 20,000 exempt from FDA ? Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 13:11

7 Answers 7

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There are several reasons:

  • Where to put boundary for organic and “traditional?”
  • What is the difference between a pesticide, an growth regulator, a herbicide and a fertilizer?

Maybe for most of cases it is simple, but it could be used by unethical companies, to bypass the restrictions, so rules should be simple, and for all cases. So now it is “not synthetic products.”

Marketing: Bio/organic is seen as product without synthetic products. What would be the message, if organic products are allowed do be produced with chemicals from large chemical farms? (Fertilizers are often byproducts of another process.)

Note: Synthetic is the correct word, and it is simple to define. Note: some chemicals byproducts from algae are allowed as pesticides, and also copper and sulphur: These are “chemicals,” “minerals” but not synthetic: They exist in nature in the same form as used as pesticides.

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  • @stormy: I doesn't understand your comment. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 7:33
  • I shouldn't make comments after midnight! We gotta get our definitions straight. Minerals, natural, pesticide, fertilizer, compost...don't you think?
    – stormy
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 8:12
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The term 'organic', in this instance, essentially means anything used on the land must contain carbon. Therefore, things like composted manures, composted plant waste, green manures,essentially, waste from anything that once lived, are organic. Minerals are derived from rocks, and do not contain any carbon, so they don't generally fit within the parameters of certified organic production, though there are some exceptions; many of the minerals which are mined are then treated chemically to make them useful as inorganic fertilizers, and the use of chemicals also rules them out for organic purposes. This information http://gardeningunlimited.com/2013/05/02/what-is-the-difference-between-organic-and-mineral-based-fertilizers/ gives a background, although it is not aimed at farmers, it's aimed at ordinary gardeners, but the principles are the same.

UPDATE

I'll try to clarify in light of your comment. The point is, minerals DO NOT contain carbon and ARE likely to contain chemicals. Organic farming is based around the idea that nothing is used on the soil or the crops that is chemical/synthetic, or has been treated chemically, so the point is not to simply increase humus, or organic, carbon rich material in soil, but to discretely exclude the use of anything else that is, has, or might have been, chemically treated, and that includes minerals.

UPDATE 2

In relation to another comment, if you like using chemicals, then use them; it only matters if you're wanting to be a certified organic producer and purveyor of foodstuffs. If you don't, you can use anything you like that's legal where you are.

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    @sanjihan - let me add something - I am horrified at the prospect of an American trade deal between the UK and the States because it means our food standards will be lowered - there are over 62 pesticide/herbicide sprays legal in the States which are illegal in the UK, all used on foodstuffs. Meat will contain growth hormones, antibiotics, chlorine and latex spray, all things we don't allow here currently under EU rules. If this trade deal goes ahead, there'll be a boycott of American foodstuffs here.I don't currently eat only organic foodstuffs but USA food is a step too far....
    – Bamboo
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 13:51
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    Everything is a chemical, including carbon, including minerals, including the plants grown.
    – user7042
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:30
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    @Snowman er, yes, including you and me, I know that,we all do, don't we, or at least I hope we do - probably why 'synthetic' is a better term to describe what you can't use in organic farming
    – Bamboo
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 15:33
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    I've always found the concept of certifying "organic sea-salt" amusing, since it contains only trace carbon. But the point is that the rules are the rules, not that the rules are a reflection of the meaning of the word "organic" to a chemist :-) Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 16:11
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    @sanjihan C16H24N4O3 is a "pure" chemical. And also the active ingredient in Glyphosate so I highly doubt that you would last very long it you decided to start drinking solutions of it...
    – Toby
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 16:53
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What I deduced from your answers. I always sucked at making summaries.

Organic means that the all the factors you can manipulate in crops production must be naturally occurring in nature. If you can't find it in nature, than it can not be used in (certified) organic farming. Having carbon restriction is too loose.

The other thing that I deduced is that organic and inorganic boundary does not separate healthy from unhealthy products. It maybe does regarding pesticides, hormones etc, but I have not read 1 fact or case study stating that PURE, LAB GRADE compounds (fertilisers in this case) are bad for you, because they are mineral.

It appears organic is the term used in marketing and as a mean to "easily" imply restrictions on crop producers.

Where I live you literally can not be a certified organic farmer if you use mineral fertilizers. The fact that this rule isn't backed up with some scientific facts surprises me. When I asked this question I was expecing ansers to be of a form: "1. they do that bad thing, 2. they are a precursor to that other bad thing". From the point I see it, they (gov) just needed to make a line somewhere, and mineral ferilizers are crossing the line.

What I heard from non internet people:

I've had a discussion with my friend who states that easily soluble fertilisers break the balance in the soil. I was hoping that one of the answers will involve this topic.

This is in no way a correct answer, just my current understanding.

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  • Great conversation piece, Sanjihan! That statement; '...easily soluble fertilizers break the (?) balance in the soil...' tells me the rest of the article or topic is null and void. These words are rhetoric...? Minerals are not have never been never will be a bad thing!!! This is amazing how off track someone has taken gardening. Soil is mineral. Salt is mineral. Phosphorus is mineral. Sulfur, silica, iron, calcium, potassium...except for the gases they are all minerals! Simple chemistry. A nitrogen atom is a nitrogen atom no matter its source.
    – stormy
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 0:26
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TLDR: Synthetic and mineral fertilisers are to soil health as high-fructose corn syrup is to human health; not a problem if used in muuuuuuuuch lower concentrations than usually occurs.

As a long-time, small-scale organic farmer, I think the following is important in order to answer your question:

'Organic', in the context of 'organic farming', is a label that is not semantically accurate nor meant to be. It is a name or label that defines an internationally agreed-upon (see IFOAM) set of farming practices that are meant to confer ecological and social benefits, in contrast with conventional farming.

To answer some of your many questions:

  1. not all mineral fertilisers are excluded from organic farming (because remember that plants can only take up nutrients from the soil in their mineral (a.k.a. inorganic, a.k.a. microbe-poop) form).
  2. fertilisers that are a) synthetically produced, b) unsustainably produced,mined or harvested or c) produced, mined or harvested in ways that are detrimental to social or environmental and human health, are usually excluded from organic farming, for the obvious reasons that their existence then goes against the ideals of organic farming. These are the pre-application reasons against some fertilisers.
  3. mineral salts of plant macro-nutrients are very difficult to apply in a way that doesn't cause soil-life imbalances, since they are essentially microbial waste-products in the soil-food-web. This is one of the during-application reasons against some mineral fertilisers.

Arguably, using mineral salts and even synthetic fertilisers can be done sustainably and with minimal detriment to a soil/farm ecosystem, if used in conjunction with organic matter and very sparingly/accurately.

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First, let's clear up some terms:

Organic (common meaning) - A system of agricultural practices focusing on improving environmental health, human health, and sustaining the land being cultivated.

Organic (legal meaning) - Certified by the USDA (or other government agency) as being "organic" and following, roughly, the above principles. Note that the USDA rules (and the rules of the analogous agencies in other countries) are subject to political pressures, and don't necessarily reflect whats best for the environment, soil, or human health. Mostly they focus on what substances you can't use. The original idea of "organic" agriculture is closer to what is now called "biodynamic" agriculture than USDA organic agriculture.

Organic (chemical meaning) - Compounds containing carbon-hydrogen bonds. In practice, this means materials originating from living (or previously living) organisms.

Mineral (common meaning) - Anything that's not organic (chemical meaning).

Mineral (chemical meaning) - Solid substances with crystalline structure. This definition isn't too relevant for us.

No wonder there are so many conflicting answers to this question!

So, what's so bad about mineral (common meaning) fertilizers? For one thing, most mineral fertilizers are easily soluble in water. When you apply them to your field, much (if not most) of the fertilizer will be leached out of the field, into waterways were the fertilizer can cause harmful algal blooms. There are also other concerns, such as burning plant roots, increasing the salinity of the soil, etc. These negative effects will still occur, no matter how much organic (chemical meaning) matter is already in your soil.

Mineral fertilizers also do not add organic matter to your soil, which is very important for nutrient holding capacity, water retention, root respiration, etc. Even if you already have a lot of organic matter in your soil, you usually need to keep adding organic matter in some form to maintain it, since it will decompose over time.

Why are some mineral fertilizers allowed? Some are mined, instead of chemically synthesized. Mining is not a whole lot better than chemical synthesis in terms of the environmental impacts of their production, but mined fertilizers are still technically naturally occurring. So these are usually allowed. Mined mineral fertilizers can be better than synthetic fertilizers for environmental and soil health if they contain a lot of non-soluble/non-plant available nutrients. Instead of being leached or used right away, these will stay in the soil until plant roots or microbes mineralize them (another definition - this means to make nutrients into their plant-available forms).

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Finally someone asks this question! "It's organic don't panic, it's synthetic don't buy it"...sigh. Hey, I am a licensed commercial pesticide applicator. Fertilizer is NOT pesticide. Chemicals are everything including us...we are bags of chemicals and chemistry.

The difference between 'organic' nitrogen and 'synthetic' nitrogen is absolutely nothing. A nitrogen atom is a nitrogen atom is a nitrogen atom. This is an arena we all need to be discussing in a very big way!!

Problems with fertilizer include; fillers, the production of fertilizer is a big problem and the incorrect application of fertilizers can be a problem but the products are not a problem at all.

The production of phosphorus produces a by product called fluoride. Extremely extremely toxic and guess what, YOU are drinking when you turn on the faucet to drink city water? Fluoride. And it has never ever been shown to do a dang thing for teeth. And we worry about putting chemicals in the soil plants have to have to do photosynthesis to grow our food?

This is a very big deal and an important concept! Fertilizer is not harming our soils. Adding fertilizer to soil to grow plants is as important as water, drainage and sunlight. Compost is NOT fertilizer, should not be used as fertilizer. It is not balanced.

This is the list of CRITICAL chemicals plant have to have to make their own food and ours as well; Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Boron, Calcium, Magnesium, Molybdenum, Iron, Sulfur, Manganese, Zinc, Vanadium, Sodium, Silicon, Selenium, Nickel, Copper, Chlorine, Cobalt, these are all ELEMENTS. I guess this makes them NON Organic...? Think about this! These chemicals are elements absolutely necessary to plants to be able to do their incredible act of photosynthesis!! Compost has maybe one or two of these elements. Compost if it is decomposed FEEDS the soil organisms! When we grow crops, gardens, heck plants in pots these are artificial systems! We humans have to add and monitor these chemicals. Throwing compost on the soil is NOT a fertilizer program.

In any ecosystem these chemicals are NOT found in the soil but for a brief time...they are in the biomass. This is why when the rain forests are chopped down that soil might have a little chemistry to grow crops for a short time but otherwise that soil is useless for growing artificial crops!

I hate the terms, 'organic', 'natural', 'nutrients' because these terms don't mean a thing anymore. They are used to sell products and are used so loosely as to become worthless.

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  • I've no idea whether your final statement is accurate for where you live, Stormy, but it's inaccurate for the UK. Soil Association Certified Organic produce is just that - produced organically, without use of synthetic fertilizers and without pesticides or herbicides. So my organic rapeseed oil has never been exposed to glyphosate and isn't GM, or the label 'organic' would be illegal. Now, that is - all bets are off for when we leave the EU. I'm more concerned about avoiding pesticide/herbicide than synthetic fertilizers though, but they do cause problems with nitrite run off into rivers.
    – Bamboo
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 21:23
  • If what you say is true and not, how shall I put it, simply your inclination to hyperbole, then things are worse than I thought over there in respect of foodstuffs. How depressing given the imminence of a UK/USA trade deal
    – Bamboo
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 21:28
  • Sorry to be such a downer. Hyperbole, sigh. I only wish. THINGS are much worse than you are able to imagine. UK/USA trade should be stopped. Our country is so corrupted, so sick. I wish I was exaggerating. Who would want to see this crap? Welp, I do and am unbelieving there are so many in this denial so they can remain in their comfy little world.
    – stormy
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 22:29
  • So you are telling me that you do not make sure plants have balanced chemistry with which to do photosynthesis? Surely you don't pretend the chemistry is already there in the soil for our artificial gardens?
    – stormy
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 22:31
  • Synthetic fertilizers versus au natural fertilizers? We gotta be so very careful when we differentiate these...two types of fertilizers. Labeling by the way, Bamboo has been snuffed. No one has to label 'this is GMO'...did you know that? Nitrates, Nitrites, Nitrogen leaching into our water sources and oceans is because of inappropriate application. Inappropriate formulations. Because we gotta have golf courses on the ocean, on the rivers, beside lakes. Do we care? Money is to be made. 'Organic' is not a label with any legalized ramifications. Having a carbon atom included is a joke.
    – stormy
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 22:36
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Nine times out of ten, Natural fertilizers imply either manure or compost with rock/ash supplements. Mineral fertilizers are the inorganic substances often dissolved using acids and machine prepared consisting of essential micronutrients such as potassium, phosphates, magnesiums, etc. all obtained by heavy mining of various sources often with heavy construction equipment; there are Environmental circumstances with it's widescale utilization.

Where as composting/manure is a natural process it is therefore considered environmentally superior, since it recycles materials, it closes the waste stream, and reduces importation often foreign acquired sources.

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