Plant nutrition

Providing crops with the nutrients they need

Organic farming uses a system approach which contributes to maintaining and enhancing soil fertility by closing nutrient cycles where possible. Plants should preferably be fed through the soil ecosystem. Few fertilisers and soil improvers are allowed in organic and their use should be justified. Additionally, all allowed fertilisers and soil improvers have to be compatible with the objectives and principles of organic production.

eric gall
Eric Gall
Policy Manager

Today’s agricultural system is highly dependent on synthetic fertilisers. This is deeply worrying because the production of manufactured fertilisers can be very energy intensive and use large amounts of fossil fuel – causing us to largely exceed earth’s natural capacities. Moreover, synthetic fertilisers are often in the hands of only a few suppliers, leading to a consolidation of power.

The consequences of excessive use of fertilisers on the environment are manifold. Applied nutrients leach into water systems, pollute the air and contribute to climate change by emitting copious amounts of nitrous oxide. Almost 40% of the EU’s agricultural emissions in the come from the production of synthetic fertilisers.

Of course, organically managed land also needs to replenish nitrogen that moves from the soil to the crops we produce. But organic agriculture seeks to create agricultural systems that are significantly lower in use of and dependency on off-farm inputs.

Organic farming strictly limits the use of synthetic fertilisers. Rather than focusing on short-term benefits, it relies on long-term integrated approaches that can provide continuous and stable food production without harming the environment. Soil is central in organic agriculture. Organic farmers see soil fertility as a complex interaction of biological, chemical and physical attributes, not just the amount of nutrients in the soil.

By taking a holistic approach, an organic system can significantly lower its dependency on external input while producing sufficient yield. Concrete management practices that organic farmers use involve using alternatives to manufactured fertilisers like animal manure, slurry, compost, biogas digest, and green manure from plant residues and nitrogen-fixing legumes.

IFOAM Organics Europe…

  • Follows the implementation of the new Fertiliser Product Regulation (EU) 2019/1009;
  • Facilitates discussion on the compatibility of recycled fertilisers suitable for organic farming (from urban waste streams, for example); and
  • Researches new types of fertilisers and their suitability for organic farming systems.
Legal framework

Legislative background

Projects IFOAM Organics Europe is involved in

RELACS – Alternatives for inputs in organic farming

The ‘Replacement of Contentious Inputs in Organic Farming Systems’ (RELACS) project looks into safe tools and technologies to phase out inputs considered contentious in organic farming. One of the project’s work packages looks into alternatives for using rock phosphates and conventional manure as fertilizers.

RELACS has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 773431. The information contained in this communication only reflects the author’s view.

SOLMACC – Organic farmers countering climate change

The ‘Strategies for Organic and Low input farming to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change’ (SOLMACC) project was about demonstrating that farming can be climate-friendly by applying a combination of optimised organic farming practices. One of these practices was ‘Optimised on-farm nutrient recycling’. Have a look at what the farmers had to say about it and read more about the practices in ‘Practical examples’.

SOLMACC is supported with the contribution of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union (agreement number: LIFE12 ENV/SE/000800).

Sustaingas

IFOAM Organics Europe was part of the Sustaingas project that aimed at promoting sustainable biogas supply by positioning sustainable biogas products from organic farming. Read the handbook for organic farmers.

Co-funded by the Intelligent Energy Europe Programme of the European Union.

Practical examples

One of the practices from the ‘Strategies for Organic and Low input farming to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change’ (SOLMACC) demonstration was ‘Optimised on-farm nutrient recycling’.

Organic agriculture uses organic fertilizers like manure, slurry, compost, biogas digest; plant residues from mulching and/or nitrogen fixing legumes in crop rotation. The advantages of these practices is that they usually use on-farm materials, thus emitting less greenhouse gas emissions from production and transportation. Of course, organic fertilizers can also have implications for climate change. For example air pollution, eutrophication and groundwater contamination. To close nutrient cycles as much as possible, and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the SOLMACC farmers tested different practices:

  1. Composting: Farmers covered compost piles of different materials with fleece blankets. Doing so efficiently reduced GHG emissions, mainly from methane compared to manure storage on an open dung heap or in a slurry pit. The compost has other indirect positive effects on climate change adaptation. Compared to applying mineral fertilisers, on-field compost application improves soil structure and thus the farm’s resilience against extreme weather events like droughts and heavy rainfall. At the same time, compost bears less hygienic risks than fresh manure – which can be of importance in vegetable production or on grasslands.
  2. Biogas production and using liquid wastes: Some SOLMACC farmers fermented their farmyard manure in their own biogas facility. Doing so, methane emissions can be reduced in comparison to keeping manure as manure pile. Additionally, they avoid emissions from fossil fuel for heating, and can use the biogas slurry as on-farm fertilizer.
  3. Mobile livestock housing: Some farmers held livestock in mobile housing on the arable fields. The straw beddings and manure from cattle, pigs, sheep and chicken functioned as fertilizer.

Have a look at what the farmers shared about their experiences.

SOLMACC is supported with the contribution of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union (agreement number: LIFE12 ENV/SE/000800).

 
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