Is there enough pig manure to feed the world?

Maybe not. But the New York Times still should have talked to some organic farmers to get their opinion on how to prevent a Malthusian future of fertilizer scarcity.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 30, 2008 2:53PM (EDT)

"Without chemical fertilizer," says Norman Borlaug at the very end of a depressing story in Wednesday's New York Times about rising fertilizer prices, "forget it. The game is over."

Norman Borlaug is the American scientist widely credited with spearheading the Green Revolution, and his views have been discussed previously in How the World Works. Short version: He believes organic agriculture cannot feed the world, and anyone who thinks so is an idiot. Chemical fertilizer facilitated a 600 percent surge in global food production between 1900 and 2000, allowing the global population to boom from 1.7 billion to 6.5 billion.

How the World Works has been preoccupied by fertilizer for a year or two now, ranging from the adventures of guano imperialists to the plans by Mideast oil states to ramp up synthetic fertilizer production, so there wasn't a huge amount of new information to learn from Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin's story. But a couple of facts -- and one glaring absence -- stood out.

Bradsher and Martin report that in Iowa, farmers are reverting to the traditional practice of spreading pig manure on their fields as a way of coping with shortages of synthetic fertilizer. Some are even integrating hog barns into their operations:

On a tour of his rolling farm in Oxford Junction in eastern Iowa, Jayson Willimack pointed to the future sites of two buildings that will hold 2,400 hogs. Their manure will eventually replace commercial fertilizer on 400 acres, about 10 percent of his farm, and save him perhaps $50,000 annually. "Every little bit helps."

But elsewhere, the reporters note that one pound of chemical fertilizer contains more of the major nutrients -- nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium -- than 100 pounds of manure. The conclusion is obvious: "organic" fertilizer cannot replace the synthetic fertilizer necessary to feed the current planetary population of 6.5 billion, much less the 9 billion expected by mid-century. And since synthetic fertilizer -- especially nitrogen-based fertilizer -- requires huge inputs of fossil fuels to manufacture, the corollary conclusion is distinctly Malthusian: We run out of fossil fuels, then we run out of fertilizer, then we run out of food.

There was only one thing missing from the Times story -- any kind of a comment from anyone representing the organic, sustainable farming community. Perhaps Iowan corn production cannot be continued on its current scale merely by adding a few thousand hogs to the life cycle of each farm, but some agricultural scientists argue that a properly managed farm, producing a multitude of different crops and animals, carefully rotated and balanced, is not only sustainable but can increase overall yields compared to an input-intensive monoculture.

I don't know if that's true. But I would have appreciated hearing from some sources who could have made the case.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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