Disclaimer: No ‘Artificial’ Fertiliser used in Organic Farming

Published on
January 15, 2013

A few months ago I participated in a round table discussion on food security organised by Vice Versa. In the resulting article that was published in the december edition of Vice Versa (the full article is not yet available online) I’m quoted saying that “…artificial fertilisers are used in organic farming” (in Dutch: “Men neemt vaak aan dat er geen kunstmest wordt gebruikt in biologische landbouw. Dat is niet zo.”). This is not exactly what I said.

The journalist chairing the round table, who did a great job in summarising about three hours of discussion, sent me the final version of the article for check-up the evening before the deadline, when I was travelling in the field in Uruguay. I had to put in practice my rudimentary knowledge of Dutch to read through it and approve it. But I failed to grasp the real meaning and implications of this sentence, which does not reflect what I meant with my statement.
First of all, we were discussing about African smallholder agriculture, not about certified organic farming in Europe or elsewhere. I argued that smallholder farming systems in Africa are very often organic though not certified (i.e., organic by default), but that they sometimes, in certain soil types, need to use small amounts of mineral or inorganic fertilisers. For instance, when legumes are planted in order to fix atmospheric nitrogen through their symbiosis with Rhizobia, their capacity to grow and/or to fix N can be limited if the soil is poor in phosphorus or too acidic. Nutrients such as P or K are present in inorganic forms, but also in animal manure. In the absence of other sources of nutrients (e.g., when farmers do not own livestock and/or they cannot collect enough manure), inorganic sources of P, K or other nutrients may be necessary. But an inorganic or mineral fertiliser is not necessarily ‘artificial’ as it was translated by the journalist (kunstmest). So the confusion arose from the assumptions that smallholder = organic, and that inorganic = artificiaI. I apologise for the implications of not having checked the text correctly, and for the wrong message that was finally published. We all know that artificial fertilisers are not allowed in certified organic farming. Lesson learnt: I need to improve my Dutch…

Pablo Tittonell
Professor Farming Systems Ecology