Myth Vs. Reality

The Truth About Fertilizers

When claims are made against specific types of fertilizer — whether they stem from misinformation, faulty projections or outright lies — many people accept them as true.

At a PotashCorp-sponsored Fertile Minds Ideas Expo, a panel of recognized experts discussing these issues, provided numerous facts and explanations that can help set the record straight and, in the process, ease the way for farmers and home gardeners to provide nutritious, affordable food for a world in need.

Fertilizers are natural-born nutrients that plants can digest: plant food.

Natural Born Nutrients


Myth: "Aren't commercial fertilizers chemicals... Harmful to wildlife, the environment and people?"


• Fertilizers are natural-born nutrients that plants can digest: “plant food.”
• Nutrients in fertilizers are the same as those in foods we eat and in our bodies.
• Fertilizers are not toxic. In fact, these nutrients are in the ground we walk on and the air we breathe.


Myth: "But Commercial Fertilizers are manufactured by companies."


• The main nutrients in most fertilizers — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — come from the land and the air.

They are not man-made; they exist in Nature.

Nitrogen (scientific chemical symbol “N”) comes from the air. In fact, 78 percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen. Phosphorus (scientific chemical symbol “P”) is fossil remains found in the soil. It is mined from beds of phosphate rock. Potassium (scientific chemical symbol “K”) is ‘salts’ evaporated from sea water. It is mined from deposits in the earth. In essence, fertilizer companies convert N, P and K nutrients into usable form for plants. See, plants need a balanced diet, just as we do. Nitrogen (N) is a key element in protein (16 percent of the protein in our bodies) and, like us, plants need it to grow. Phosphorus (P) is a mineral needed for energy in plants. It works like carbohydrates in people. Potassium (K) is a mineral that helps plants fight stress and disease, and prevent injury. Like calcium helps us build strong bones, potassium helps plants grow strong stalks.


Myth: If nutrients are in the ground and air, why add more?"


There are actually two issues to address here.
• First of all, farmers aren’t “adding” nutrients; they’re replacing those taken away by crops. As plants grow during the season, they “mine” the nutrients they need from the soil. At harvest, those nutrients “go to market” with the crop, leaving a shortage for next season. Fertilizing completes the cycle — recycling nutrients back to the land for new crops to use.
• Secondly, plants can’t digest nutrients “as is;” they must be converted into usable form, and most plants can’t do that. Furthermore, while nitrogen in air is everywhere, major phosphorus and potassium supplies are far from the best cropland.

In sum: Nature created the nutrients. Fertilizer companies make them digestible for plants and help farmers put them where they can produce the most food.


Soils do not naturally contain all the nutrients needed. And, soils with some of those nutrients may not be where the best crops are grown.

Nutrients in fertilizers are the same as those in the foods we eat and in our bodies.

• While Nature can provide to a limited degree, it takes many years — even decades for organisms in the soil to build up enough nutrients for a decent crop yield.
• If we grow crops in virgin soil, in a single season the crops can mine many years’ worth of naturally produced nutrients.
• Historically, American pioneers could “Go West” as soil nutrients were depleted . . . an option that ended long ago.

Bottom line: Nature needs help.

Organically Grown Food

Myth: “Organic farmers don’t use fertilizers.”


• Correction: organic growers usually do use fertilizer — but in a form such as manure from livestock, rather than conventional commercial types. (Nature needs help in “organic” operations, too.)
• Fertilizer nutrients are the same, whether “organic” or commercial.

Myth: "If nutrients are the same, why not go 'organic'?"


Two big reasons are:
• There isn’t enough organic fertilizer to meet high-yield farming demands. To even get close to enough would require millions of acres in addition to those that farmers use now.
• Organic fertilizers do not provide a balanced diet for plants.

In livestock manure, for instance, the concentration of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) can vary widely — both in terms of how much of these nutrients is in the manure, as well as the N-P-K ratio.

Applying enough manure to provide adequate nitrogen (N) for corn, over time could likely add 4-5 times as much phosphorus (P) as the crop requires. In short, it’s virtually impossible to closely match fertilizer nutrients with crop needs using only manure. And it’s easy to “naturally” over- or under-fertilize.

Myth: "Organic farming protects the environment, wildlife and habitats; conventional farming doesn't."


In either type of farming operation, responsible and efficient fertilizer use poses no real threat to any of the above. The quantity and quality of food provided by conventional farming has enabled our growing population to eat better for decades… without farmers using more land for crops. On the other hand, millions of additional acres would be needed if we relied on organic methods — and we’d have less food.

Myth: "Crop yields using organic methods are about the same as with conventional farming."


• Rarely, if ever. Typically, organic crop yields are only one-third to one-half as high as those from farms using conventional methods and commercial fertilizers.
• The cost to produce organic food (per pound, bushel or ton) is usually much higher too… a key reason why organic foods are more expensive to buy.

Myth: "Organically grown food is safer, healthier and more nutritious."


Many people have that impression because words like “natural” and “organic” have come to mean “good and good for you”.
• There is, however, no proof of nutritional superiority.
• Even leaders of groups such as the Organic Trade Association and knowledgeable organic growers themselves make no such claim — with good reason: there is no solid evidence to support it.

Crop Yields


Myth: "America is awash in fertilizer and farmers keep pouring it on."


• On the contrary, tests show that nearly half of America’s most productive soils lack the nutrients to sustain current yields.
• Not only that, farmers have been depleting soil nutrient reserves rapidly in recent years. Last year they applied only 75 percent of the phosphorus that crops removed and only 50 percent of the potassium mined by crops.

Overall, farmers use less commercial fertilizer now than in 1980.

For instance, nitrogen usage peaked in 1994 and phosphorus’ apex was in 1977.

Myth: "But crop yields are increasing, which proves that farmers have been ‘pouring it on."


Not at all. It’s true, of course, that:
• North American farmers have tripled yields on essentially the same acreage since 1960.
• And last year U.S. growers used slightly less nitrogen to produce over 50 percent more corn than in 1980.

Fact is, however, simply applying more fertilizer isn’t the answer — and it never has been. Along with hybrid seed varieties and other items contributing to higher yields, overall resource and nutrient management practices are a driving force.

New and improved practices range from soil sampling and tillage methods, to the use of starter fertilizers, more-precise fertilizer placement and application timing.

Myth: "High-yield farming sounds like ‘more fertilizer for more bushels’ is all that growers care about."


Farming is a business — a livelihood. Think of farmland as a food manufacturing plant. To achieve the highest Return On Investment (ROI), farmers don't want more seed than they need or more fertilizer than this season's crop can use because it all costs money. Conventional farming methods and commercial fertilizers make it possible.

They provide, in a word: control.
Starting with soil testing, growers now can exercise unprecedented control over:
• how much fertilizer is applied
• the relative amount of each nutrient (suppliers can customize “40-20-20, 10-10-10, 30-0-30” or other field- and crop-specific N-P-K blends)
• how much goes where within each field using GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) systems and equipment
• application timing and placement (starter fertilizers, for instance, with 2x2 banding to put fertilizer two inches
alongside and two inches below the seed.)

Myth: "We could feed the world without commercial fertilizer."


Without commercial fertilizer the world would be without:
• one-third of its current food supply
• forests, wildlife habitats and leisure areas
• wetlands, buffer zones and other marginal land not presently farmed
• funds for many things we now have, because we’d need a lot more money for food. In short, without commercial fertilizers we’d be without much of the quality of life we enjoy today.

Why? It's simple:
• At least one-third of global food supplies is a direct result of commercial fertilizer use.
• Even so, one out of three people in the world today lacks what some global food industry observers refer to as “food security:” they cannot grow or afford to buy enough food.
• World population — now about 7 billion — will grow to over 8 billion by 2025, which means food production will need to double in the next 20 or so years in order to provide global food security.
• Trying to match even current supplies without commercial fertilizer would require using every available non-urban acre of land — plowing down all forests, wildlife habitats, leisure areas and more.