Natural vs Synthetically Produced Fertilizers

What does “Natural” mean, and what does “Synthetic” mean? And exactly what makes commercially (synthetically?) produced fertilizers any worse for your garden than naturally produced ones? This is one area in which a lot of baloney gets thrown around – and regrettably too often believed by many good people.

The simplest and most natural of the “commercial” fertilizers may be lime. The world has an inexhaustible supply of limestone (calcium carbonate), and it’s simply ground to powder in powerful rock crushers, bagged, and sold to the public. We even receive much of our magnesium from the same process, when the raw material is dolomitic limestone.

All twelve of the other nutrients man can control are also mined from the earth. However, we have learned over time how to:
1) remove impurities, such as heavy metals, 2) increase the concentration of the individual nutrients, and
3) make the nutrient percentages exact, by running them through a simple concentration process. This is often a sulfuric acid bath, which leaves us with a much higher concentration of the original nutrient in compound with sulfur, which is itself a very important nutrient.

So, we benefit by getting a much higher concentration of the nutrient we want, plus sulfur, with no heavy metals, and it costs MUCH less to ship and handle, because it weighs only a fraction of the original raw material. And we are able to apply measured amounts to provide exactly what is needed, with no waste.

Are those fertilizers synthetically produced? I don’t think so, but perhaps they are by some peoples’ definition.

Even nitrogen is mined out of the ground! This may surprise many people, but it actually is – in South America – where huge mines of sodium nitrate exist. But can you imagine the cost to get it to the USA?!

Thank goodness we have found a better, more efficient, and therefore far less costly way to produce nitrogen fertilizers.

About 100 years ago two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch, discovered and commercialized the process by which nitrogen could be separated from other elements in different compounds and made available as fertilizer. These discoveries arguably served as the single most important component leading to exponential global agricultural growth, and the Haber-Bosch process is still used today.

I believe we owe much of what we have today to the use of nitrogen that’s produced by the Haber-Bosch process, and whether or not it’s synthetic to me is no more relevant than if God’s separation of nitrogen from those same elements by the use of lightning is synthetic.

Meanwhile some passionate organic advocates even say the use of chemicals is terrible, not even adding the “synthetic” epithet. This really just shows an ignorance of the laws of nature, because everything in this world is chemical! What the geologist calls mineral, and the farmer calls manure, the chemist calls chemical, but they’re all talking about the same thing. Even J. I. Rodale, the “father” of the organic movement as the publisher of Organic Magazine, said “A plant can’t tell the difference between nitrogen from a leaf and that from a fertilizer bag.”

If there is a valid and important argument against the synthetic production of chemicals having to do with the garden, I believe it should be limited to pesticides and herbicides.

Let’s address the issue of nitrogen fertilizer again from a slightly different angle. Nitrogen is the only nutrient we use that is usually not mined from the earth, and the most common sources are the air itself, and organic material. How so?
Most everyone knows about the animal sources called blood and bone meal, and the vegetable sources called manure and compost. Those are not very efficient sources, however, with the best containing only 5-10% nitrogen, and the most commonly used (manure & compost) containing only about 1% nitrogen.

I believe in using nitrogen from the best sources available, and those are God’s free air and His Compost Piles. What? Where does it come from you ask? Our greatest source of nitrogen is from the air (76% nitrogen!), and lightning causes it to combine with rain, providing many millions of tons of it all over the world.

As I mentioned earlier the German scientists Haber & Bosch, back around 1913, learned how to extract nitrogen from the air, as anhydrous ammonia, and fertilizer from ammonia is credited with sustaining 1/3rd of the world’s population!

In addition, massive deposits of earth’s first land plants – vegetable organic materials that lie deep underground all over the world, and which over millennia have been compressed into coal – are dug out and then processed into coke, with ammonium sulfate nitrogen as an important by-product!

And urea (46-0-0), one compound made from anhydrous ammonia, is actually classed as an organic material because it includes carbon, although it is not as readily available to plants, and therefore not as good in the garden as ammonium nitrate (34-0-0), and sometimes even ammonium sulfate (21-0-0).

I say, don’t be afraid of these nitrogen compounds! Long after mankind has stopped using gasoline and gone on to use the hydrogen from air as fuel, we will most likely still be using the nitrogen from air and from earth’s first organic compost piles to feed our garden plants. I believe that’s the way God intended it, and He’s a much better composter than even the best of us.