Down with Foreign Fertilizer!?


Like all of you, I haven’t read the Republican platform and won’t read the Democratic one, either, but some journalists DO, and one newspaper helpfully listed what they consider the 10 oddest items in the Republican Platform.  And darned if number 4 isn’t right on topic for us gardeners:

End our dependence on foreign… fertilizer? “Our dependence on foreign imports of fertilizer could threaten our food supply, and we support the development of domestic production of fertilizer.”

Phosphate Mine

The story went on to offer a link to, this analysis of “America’s potential fertilizer woes,” which is titled “Forget Oil, Worry about Phosphorus.”  Seems that “the world’s agriculture depends on a mineral that is declining in production and is controlled by a cartel of companies.”

Indeed there are lots of alarming reports about “peak phosphorus” but at least we buy it mainly from domestic sources, and the U.S. actually exports about half its phosphorus production – for now.  Our domestic reserves are expected to be gone in 15 to 30 years, after which we’ll have to get it from places like Morocco and China, which together have 60 percent of the world’s reserves.

But wait; the problem isn’t just phosphorus; the other major nutrients are also of concern.  The U.S. imports more than half its nitrogen (mainly from Trinidad, Tobago, Canada and Russia) and 86% of its potassium (mainly from Canada and Russia).  And according to Grist, the real problem IS nitrogen, for which we’re increasingly dependent on other nations.

So, finding more domestic sources of these nutrients is a priority, but another tack is to use less of them and waste less of them, especially the ones that run off into our waterways and pollute them.

Stepping back, experts outside the fertilizer industry point to the generally unsustainable nature of our industrial food production system that relies so heavily on these diminishing supplies of fossil fuel and mined fertilizer.  Well, yeah.

Sadly, it didn’t take much googling for me to realize this is all far too complex for me, a psych major turned gardenblogger, but I was still curious about the politics of this.  Reading the response of the Fertilizer Institute raised more questions than answers because they say domestic production is on the upswing; not to worry.

But a popular political blog offers some context for inclusion of fertilizer in a major party platform, and it makes sense – in that crazy way that things make sense only in politics.

So what’s really behind this? Nitrogen based fertilizer is made from ammonia which is made from natural gas. From the late 90’s until a couple of years ago the rising price of natural gas made it cheaper to import nitrogen fertilizer from places with little or no environmental regulation than to produce it domestically and much of the US based production shut down. Trinidad is the biggest producer of imported fertilizer and has very little environmental regulation. Producing fertilizer is a very dirty and polluting enterprise. Since natural gas prices have fallen in the US, some shuttered domestic plants are slated for reactivation and the owners don’t want the EPA regulating their dirty business. One of the big fertilizer producers is Koch Fertilizer, which also owns production capacity in Trinidad.

But readers, what do YOU think?  Anyone want to speak up for good old compost?

Photo credit:  Greater Yellowstone Coalition


  1. I don’t believe it’s necessary to read either groups platform. In the heat of election either side will say anything to get the power. If you want the truth, then follow both of their historical record of what it is they’ve actually done. Most likely you’ll find the slime trail left behind both groups hard rather hard to tell apart. The present ongoing destruction of the environment out in the western part of your country under the cloak of Eco-Green when it comes to Solar & Wind Energy is still run by the same political giants who contribute to both campaigns.

    Yes, keep up your own composting programs and organic vegetable gardens. There are countless scientific papers just the past decade revealing the amazing facts about how nature efficiently works and manages itself. And yet conventional Science (The Science that actually Rules) rejects all of it in favour of technologies that degrade as opposed to anything sustainable. Yet why is this ? Because the conventional science is what makes giant Corporations an obscene amount of wealth. Just wrote about it a couple days ago.

    • Timeless, while I agree that politicians from both sides of the aisle will routinely climb into bed with any and every corporate concern that flutters cash into their campaign fund, as a gardener who votes I have to reject out of hand a presidential candidate who mocks the idea of climate change in his nomination acceptance speech.

      With politicians you often have to set the bar really, really low…and Mitt tripped.

  2. Well, the paragraph from the political blog tells me everything I need to know – the infamous Koch brothers are fertilizer producers. (That also pretty much explains where the GOP platform comes from; there’s fertilizer aplenty in that.) Anyway, it isn’t surprising that no one talks about green alternatives – that’s a dirty word (pardon the pun) where the GOP is concerned. Common sense doesn’t grab headlines these days, although given how rare it is, you’d think it would…..compost, using a mulching mower – these are the things that are easy and free and available to anyone. Which is probably just what the politicians don’t like about it.

    • In reply to Chris C, NC, LOTS, mostly the newly discovered metals in Afghanistan are the “rare earths” used in making electronic devices and batteries. For corporation to want to invest in infrastructure to mine these there needs to be a stable government there.

  3. I’m fascinated by the statement that nitrogen based fertilizer is made from natural gas – suggesting there is no other way to make it? Nitrogen in my garden comes from the chicken manure in my compost. I finally got a soil test this year and the results said, No More Nitrogen! This suggests to me that we could make better use of the manure from our dairy farms and feed lots and turn what is a big pollution problem into a benefit. That would be easier to do if those operations were smaller and spread out – but that is another whole subject about the benefits of decentralizing our food supply.

    • What is being spoken about here is the science-based large marketing corporate Chemical Fertilizers for example Miracle Grow which was mentioned. If you look at most all Miracle Grow products they are in a crystal salt form. Hence the old expression when referring to plant nutrients “Salts”.

      These are really concentrated and can easily burn many plants. Used continuously over a long period of time and you will have a saline soil to salty to grow anything. In western Australia I have a friend who flew a plane over Perth and the outback east of there. He said down below you can see the massive circles created by the Farmer’s who use circular patterned irrigation. But they also use chemicals and have destroyed these once productive areas which are now bleach white from to much chrmicals which turned the dryland to salt.

    • I have occasion now & them to drive down through California’s Central Valley & observe the agricultural goings-on along the way. What has really struck me for many years is that you’ll find a dairy farm/stockyard next to a field. The land with the cows invariably has a large pile of manure that he cannot get rid of & must handle as toxic waste … while the land with the plants is being treated with chemical fertilizers to increase its bounty. You’d think the neighbors could get together & take care of one another’s problems, huh ?

      • Agreed Laura, but unfortunately logic in doing the right thing doesn’t prevail when there is all this money to be made by a handful of corporations who put the wrong men in power. Seriously, it’s worked this way as long as mankind’s been on the Earth.

      • Unfortunately the cattle manure is contaminated with e. coli, salmonella, sodium chloride, growth hormones, antibiotics, and so on.

        It may smell natural, but it ain’t. 🙁

  4. There’s definitely something rotten about such a platform topic. How about foreign cheese or foreign wine? Or even worse, foreign plants! Yes, let’s get rid of all those illegal immigrant plants, but only after the USA annexes Mexico so we can survive on maize, beans, and squash.

  5. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on where we should get our nitrogen, I only know that we should use less of it. What’s more frightening to me is the fact that public policy in this country is simply sold to the highest bidder.

    • Jason:
      “I don’t know enough to have an opinion on where we should get our nitrogen, I only know that we should use less of it.”

      This is real easy Jason. Anyone can learn this. Go to any pristine ecosystem and appreciate that all that greenery you see is NOT the result of any chemical companies hired to sprinkle Miracle Grow or any other product around. Plants and their symbiotic relationships to fungi & bacteria accomplish this. Some plants are great nitrogen fixes for which they take it from the air and transform it into nods on their roots with the help of bacteria. Fungi can actually search and destroy nitrogen in it’s locked unavailable form to plants, chew it up and spit it out into a form plants utilize.

      No landscape situation if biologically healthy enough needs any of these products. Gardens with vegetables and flowers gardens ( Ruderals ) all need a fairly nutrient rich soil. They’re different than trees and shrubs, though they can benefit from both bacteria and fungi at times. Still use an organic fertility program. You simple don’t need the pretty packaging sold in stores.

  6. Agree with a number of the comments. In much of Europe, we use anaerobic digestion to recycle micro-nutrients, as well as NPK, with the additional benefit of reducing greenhouse gases from the storage and spreading of manures and slurries. Also, Digestate nitrogen is much more available to plants, so fossil fertilisers are not necessary and phosphate/nitrate runoff to watercourses is not so much of a problem.

  7. Yeah, I agree. We’ve got to go back to making real compost. I don’t really have much to add that others haven’t also said. Milorganite is a great product. We need more of it all over the country. And people and communities need to compost. I saw a clip on the History Channel… of all places… for a kitchen composter. The problem is they say you just scrape your food scraps into it and it makes lovely finished compost right in your kitchen in just a couple weeks. REALLY????? Well, way down buried inside the site for this product it said the kit comes with a small package of pelletized sawdust to use if it gets smelly… which should last about 6 months. HUH? One needs considerable amounts of browns to go with all those kitchen scrap greens to make good compost (that doesn’t smell). On other blogs exploring this product there were many slams… more than praises. This is what turns people off of composting. Incorrect or incomplete teaching of how to DO composting. Or the creation of devices that don’t work as easily or completely as a consumer would want to be happy with the end result.

    There doesn’t seem to be a good substitute for good old fashioned composting. I realize many homeowners don’t have very large yards, but composting needs to be a priority. We all need to get into it. And thanks to some cities who are now composting… Portland, OR for one. I’m not absolutely sure they are doing it right, but they are doing something. It’s a start I guess.

  8. I agree about making your own compost – it’s not as easy as many describe it! I think you also need to look very carefully at the source of any animal fertilizer. Feedlot cattle and chickens in sheds are fed all sorts of additives to keep them hungry and thirsty (so they put on weight faster), and even sedated. These additives can affect both the pH & salinity of the manure. Manure from grassfed animals is a much safer alternative. Fortunately here in Australia we have a lot less feedlot or grain-finished beef. And Timeless Environments – although I agree with much of what you say, the salt pans of Western & Central Australia have no connection with fertilizing. Australia was once covered by an inland sea, and it’s actually a combination of tree removal & excessive irrigation that raises the water table & brings salts to the surface.

  9. So, the planet is “running out” of NPK. Rumor has it that fresh water will soon be priced by the barrel- like oil.
    Perhaps Gaia will awaken and deal with the “parasitic problem” that is causing all these “shortages”.
    Until then, grown yer own- with the help of those marvelous machines that kill the bugs and produce organic NPK (I speak, of course, of the noble chicken. . .)

  10. Just curious here, what do the vegetable porocessors do with their waste? Peas have pods and corn has husks and cobs. Where does that stuff go?

  11. Bone Meal is Phosphorus and as long as people eat meat there will be Bone meal. Consumption of meat most likely will continue to go up over the years. Superphosphate is also manufactured from Bone Meal with additives and treatment with acid. The only mineral and mined phosphate I know of is Rock Phosphate and rock phosphate is not a very popular or very effective phosphate fertilizer. I’m British not American so perhaps I should not give an opinion on US politics but if your Politicians are like mine then it most likely is some electioneering scaremongering/propaganda to get votes. I was watching the Repubican convention and it seems to me most of them still believe the world was created in 7 days by god the creator. That is laughable and I wouldn’t take seriously anything such people have to say and even less put those people into power in what is the most powerful country on earth. I don’t trust anything politicians say here and from what I can tell I wouldn’t trust anything US politicians say either.

    On a different subject to help put Alices curiosity to rest, vegetable processors vegetable waste as well as other vegetable and garden waste nowadays goes for composting to then make the peat replacement peat free potting soils. Composted at high temperatures in giant municiple composting plants. That is how it is done here and I think also in most other countries too.

    If anyone is puzzling as to why a Brit has started to read and comment on a US gardening website the reason is US gardening websites are so much better with people commenting who actually have some brains and can think and have a proper debate. This website is particularly good. The British gardening websites are boring and have boring people commenting usually just a few cenial old people and the rest are organic gardening loonies as well as stay at home bored wives with no knowledge of gardening other than a window box.

    • Colin, if your politicians are as scaremongering as you suggest, then they are EXACTLY like the ones over here in the US. It goes way beyond believing that the Earth was created in just seven days, but is only 2000 years old as well. Climate change is a debatable topic, as is evolution, and everything outside our borders is suspect. We should care about everybody before they are born and then abandon them once they are. Dinosaurs are an elaborate hoax, and if you are not rich already, then you are lazy. So simple to see the world as just what’s right and what’s wrong without any gray areas at all. So keep posting here in the US and take comfort in knowing that assholes are an international phenomenon.

  12. Bone and the rest of you

    The way you have summed them up is exactly the way I did. I was watching sarah palin on TV saying Dinosaurs must have been on earth the same time as people straight after the creation. I had to laugh and then I was concerend how people with such believes could ever be taken seriously enough to be put into positions of power. I would say it is potentially dangerous to have people with such beliefs in power. have they never learned the science which has been learned over the past 200 years? I don’t believe a word that comes out of any politicians lying mouth whether than be UK or USA or EU or anywhere else and neither do most people here anymore. The presention is slightly different here. Any politican here who ended a speach ”God Bless United Kingdom” would be commiting political suicide and would never be taken seriously again so politicians here never ever do the God thing. But underneath the surface the same people pull the strings, like the Bishops of the Protestant church with their massive crosses so big they can’t see in front of themselves and all of them about 90 years old. Thankfully we are not slaves to the Catholic church like Ireland is, although they are starting to wake up and turn their backs on it.

    The Bankers hold the government to ransom because it is the only business which actually bring in enough tax revenue now.

    The environment always comes last on everything. Stupid talk from politicians about ‘sustainable development’ which any idiot must be able to work out is a total contradition. It is equivalant to someone saying I can keep on drawing money from my bank account but the balance will never go down. Impossible. Ever increasing air traffic here and more runways and yet the fuel will get less and less available and more and more expensive. In the same breath they talk about saving the environment and in that same breath talk about increasing trade and development.

    One third of arable land now grows biofuel so the price of food rises all the time but wages do not thanks to the cheap immigrant workers. Some food here as much as 40% in 5 years. Now everyone is scrambling to hire plots to grow veg but 95% of people do not know how to so they have plots which look like a 5 year old is tending it and hardly any crops come off the plot (only weeds)

    The demands of business always comes first whether that be new rail links cutting through farmland and ancient woodlands or new industrial business parks on green field sites. And not forgetting the cheap labour they bring in from abroad who then never leave. If the government really cared for the environment they would not allow any of that kind of thing to happen.

    Losing farmland in a country which is only 66% self sufficient in food is crazy. USA produces a massive food surplus which we are dependent on importing, which is probably one of the reasons why the UK government dare not ever upset the US.

    There is no compulsary education at all here on how to grow veg and fruit, whether that be gardening at home or growing crops commercially. Most of the food retailing is controlled by no more than 5 big supermarket chains (including walmart under a different name here) They put their profits first by holding the farmers to random on price and they drive the price down so low the farmers give up and sell the land for development. The government lets it happens because they say they are commited to non-intervention government like price fixing and believe in the free market.

    Politicians always say the right thing but never do the right thing. They are controlled by global corporations and global banks who do not care at all about the individual nations, as they see the world only as one place. Like you, we are in a two party system but with a small third party holding the balance of power and they are about as bad as it gets. There is also very little difference now between the two biggest parties so 50% of people do not even bother voting anymore. So therefore there is nothing the majority of people can do about any situation other than accept it and try to adapt.

    People retreat into their own little worlds and do their own thing as best they can. The amateur organic gardeners tend to be dreamers and fantasists who do not have a grip on reality. They like to pretend that growing organic is the answer to saving the planet. Only someone extremely neive would believe that. They attack research and development to breed higher yielding crops and they have succeeded in getting GM banned completely here and yet they offer no answers or solutions to any problems we face in the future regarding supply meeting demand.

    A simple thing anyone should be able to understand is we cannot keep on taking out of a pot without ever putting anything back in. We cannot fit more than a pint into a pint pot so rising population is a recipe for disaster eventually (especially on a small island)

    Politicians only look ahead 5 years to the next Election. I never hear them talking about 10 years from now or 20 years from now.

    People here are officially gagged by law (meaning free speech means only saying what we are supposed to say) so some things I would like to say I do not, but basically we must not ever dare say anything against those religions who are too easily offended or anyone who is not what we would regard as Native. 75% of UK citizens want to leave the European Union but both the government and the other party say we are staying in it whether we like it or not and we are not going to have a choice. This is supposed to be a democracy but it is more like the old soviet union dictatorship now.

    Not my business to criticise the US Republican Party but they all seem to be hardened Christians yet they don’t seem to have very much compassion towards their fellow man (apart from those who are rich) They still believe in the right to bare arms and they support the American gun-ho culture which doesn’t exist in any other western country. Do they think it is still the Wild-West they are living in in 1850, rushing around on horses fighting Red Indians? I thought Christians were supposed to believe that only the Lord can give life and takes it away.

    They don’t seem to care too much about environmental issues or looking after the planet but are arrogant towards other countries attempts to be more environmentally friendly. Do many of them actually know there is a world beyond the shores and borders of the USA?. I’m not saying I think it is only them who are like it but it was the impression I got from watching on TV.

    If you are wondering how I can watch it all here there is CBSNews FoxNews ABCNews and others like MNSBC??? on satalite TV. I was watching FoxNews and I was surprised how partisan towards Republicans they are. It was so biased towards them. Here TV stations have to remain neutral by law, although it is easy to tell which side they are on. Newspapers can take sides.

    RANT OVER have a nice day folks

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