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Spreading manure, an organic fertilizer

Fertilizers (British English fertilisers) are compounds given to plants to promote growth; they are usually applied either via the soil, for uptake by plant roots, or by foliar feeding, for uptake through leaves. Fertilizers can be organic (composed of organic matter, i.e. carbon based), or inorganic (containing simple, inorganic chemicals). They can be naturally occurring compounds such as peat or mineral deposits, or manufactured through natural processes (such as composting), or chemical processes (such as the Haber process).

Fertilizers typically provide, in varying proportions, the three major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), the secondary plant nutrients (calcium, sulfur, magnesium), and sometimes trace elements (or micronutrients) with a role in plant nutrition: boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum.

In the past, both organic and inorganic fertilizers were called "manures," but this term is now mostly restricted to man-made manure.


Inorganic fertilizers (mineral fertilizer)

Macronutrients and micronutrients

Fertilizers can be divided into macronutrients or micronutrients based on their concentrations in plant dry matter. There are six macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, often termed "primary macronutrients" because their availability is usually managed with NPK fertilizers, and the "secondary macronutrients" -- calcium, magnesium, and sulfur -- which are required in roughly similar quantities but whose availability is often managed as part of liming and manuring practices rather than fertilizers. The macronutrients are consumed in larger quantities and normally present as a whole number or tenths of percentages in plant tissues (on a dry matter weight basis). There are many micronutrients, required in concentrations ranging from 5 to 100 parts per million (ppm) by mass. Plant micronutrients include iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), chlorine (Cl), and zinc (Zn).

Macronutrient fertilizers

Synthesized materials are also called artificial, and may be described as straight, where the product predominantly contains the three primary ingredients of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are known as N-P-K fertilizers or compound fertilizers when elements are mixed intentionally. They are named or labeled according to the content of these three elements, which are macronutrients. The mass fraction (percent) nitrogen is reported directly. However, phosphorus is reported as phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5), the anhydride of phosphoric acid, and potassium is reported as potash or potassium oxide (K2O), which is the anhydride of potassium hydroxide. Fertilizer composition is expressed in this fashion for historical reasons in the way it was analyzed (conversion to ash for P and K); this practice dates back to Justus von Liebig (see more below). Consequently, an 18-51-20 fertilizer would have 18% nitrogen as N, 51% phosphorus as P2O5, and 20% potassium as K2O, The other 11% is known as ballast and may or may not be valuable to the plants, depending on what is used as ballast. Although analyses are no longer carried out by ashing first, the naming convention remains. If nitrogen is the main element, they are often described as nitrogen fertilizers.

In general, the mass fraction (percentage) of elemental phosphorus, [P] = 0.436 x [P2O5]

and the mass fraction (percentage) of el emental potassium, [K] = 0.83 x [K2O]

(These conversion factors are mandatory under the UK fertilizer-labelling regulations if elemental values are declared in addition to the N-P-K declaration.[1])

An 18−51−20 fertilizer therefore contains, by weight, 18% elemental nitrogen (N), 22% elemental phosphorus (P) and 16% elemental potassium (K).

Agricultural versus horticultural

In general, agricultural fertilizers contain only one or two macronutrients. Agricultural fertilizers are intended to be applied infrequently and normally prior to or along side seeding. Examples of agricultural fertilizers are granular triple superphosphate, potassium chloride, urea, and anhydrous ammonia. The commodity nature of fertilizer, combined with the high cost of shipping, leads to use of locally available materials or those from the closest/cheapest source, which may vary with factors affecting transportation by rail, ship, or truck. In other words, a particular nitrogen source may be very popular in one part of the country while another is very popular in another geographic region only due to factors unrelated to agronomic concerns.

Horticultural or specialty fertilizers, on the other hand, are formulated from many of the same compounds and some others to produce well-balanced fertilizers that also contain micronutrients. Some materials, such as ammonium nitrate, are used minimally in large scale production farming. The 18-51-20 example above is a horticultural fertilizer formulated with high phosphorus to promote bloom development in ornamental flowers. Horticultural fertilizers may be water-soluble (instant release) or relatively insoluble (controlled release). Controlled release fertilizers are also referred to as sustained release or timed release. Many controlled release fertilizers are intended to be applied approximately every 3-6 months, depending on watering, growth rates, and other conditions, whereas water-soluble fertilizers must be applied at least every 1-2 weeks and can be applied as often as every watering if sufficiently dilute. Unlike agricultural fertilizers, horticultural fertilizers are marketed directly to consumers and become part of retail product distribution lines.

Justus von Liebig

Chemist Justus von Liebig (in the 19th century) contributed greatly to the advancement of understanding of plant nutrition. His influential works first denounced the vitalist theory of humus, arguing first the importance of ammonia, and later the importance of inorganic minerals. Primarily his work succeeded in setting out questions for agricultural science to address over the next 50 years. His attempt at implementation of his theories commercially in England with artificial phosphate based fertilizer, which was much less expensive than the guano that was used at the time, failed because it was not able to be absorbed by crops.

Nitrogen fertilizer

Nitrogen fertilizer is often synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia. This ammonia is applied directly to the soil or used to produce other compounds, notably ammonium nitrate and urea, both dry, concentrated products that may be used as fertilizer materials or mixed with water to form a concentrated liquid nitrogen fertilizer, UAN. Ammonia can also be used in the Odda Process in combination with rock phosphate and potassium fertilizer to produce compound fertilizers such as 10-10-10 or 15-15-15.

The production of ammonia currently consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, equating to around 2% of world energy production [1]. Natural gas is overwhelmingly used for the production of ammonia, but other energy sources, together with a hydrogen source, can be used for the production of nitrogen compounds suitable for fertilizers. The cost of natural gas makes up about 90% of the cost of producing ammonia [2]. The price increases in natural gas in the past decade, among other factors such as increasing demand, have contributed to an increase in fertilizer price.

Health and sustainability issues

Inorganic fertilizers sometimes do not replace trace mineral elements in the soil which become gradually depleted by crops grown there. This has been linked to studies which have shown a marked fall (up to 75%) in the quantities of such minerals present in fruit and vegetables.[2] One exception to this is in Western Australia where deficiencies of zinc, copper, manganese, iron and molybdenum were identified as limiting the growth of crops and pastures in the 1940s and 1950s. Soils in Western Australia are very old, highly weathered and deficient in many of the major nutrients and trace elements. Since this time these trace elements are routinely added to inorganic fertilizers used in Agriculture in this state.

In many countries there is the public perception that inorganic fertilizers "poison the soil" and result in "low quality" produce. However, there is very little (if any) scientific evidence to support these views. When used appropriately, inorganic fertilizers enhance plant growth, the accumulation of organic matter and the biological activity of the soil, while reducing the risk of water run-off, overgrazing and soil erosion. The nutritional value of plants for human and animal consumption is typically improved when inorganic fertilizers are used appropriately.

There are concerns though about arsenic and cadmium accumulating in fields treated with phosphate fertilizers. Eventually these can build up to unacceptable levels and get into the produce. (See cadmium poisoning.)

Another problem with inorganic fertilizers is that they are presently produced in ways which cannot be continued indefinitely. Potassium and phosphorus come from mines (or from saline lakes such as the Dead Sea in the case of potassium fertilizers) and resources are limited. Nitrogen is unlimited, but nitrogen fertilizers are presently made using fossil fuels such as natural gas. Theoretically fertilizers could be made from sea water or atmospheric nitrogen using renewable energy, but doing so would require huge investment and is not competitive with today's unsustainable methods.

Organic fertilizers

A compost bin
  • Examples of naturally occurring organic fertilizers include manure, slurry, worm castings, peat, seaweed, sewage , and guano. Green manure crops are also grown to add nutrients to the soil. Naturally occurring minerals such as mine rock phosphate, sulfate of potash and limestone are also considered Organic Fertilizers.
  • Examples of manufactured organic fertilizers include compost, bloodmeal, bone meal and seaweed extracts. Other examples are natural enzyme digested proteins, fish meal, and feather meal.

The decomposing crop residue from prior years is another source of fertility. Though not strictly considered "fertilizer", the distinction seems more a matter of words than reality.

Some ambiguity in the usage of the term 'organic' exists because some of synthetic fertilizers, such as urea and urea formaldehyde, are fully organic in the sense of organic chemistry. In fact, it would be difficult to chemically distinguish between urea of biological origin and that produced synthetically. On the other hand, some fertilizer materials commonly approved for organic agriculture, such as powdered limestone, mined "rock phosphate" and Chilean saltpeter, are inorganic in the use of the term by chemistry.

Although the density of nutrients in organic material is comparatively modest, they have some advantages. For one thing organic growers typically produce some or all of their fertilizer on-site, thus lowering operating costs considerably. Then there is the matter of how effective they are at promoting plant growth, chemical soil test results aside. The answers are encouraging. Since the majority of nitrogen supplying organic fertilizers contain insoluble nitrogen and are slow release fertilizers their effectiveness can be greater than conventional nitrogen fertilzers.

Implicit in modern theories of organic agriculture is the idea that the pendulum has swung the other way to some extent in thinking about plant nutrition. While admitting the obvious success of Leibig's theory, they stress that there are serious limitations to the current methods of implementing it via chemical fertilization. They re-emphasize the role of humus and other organic components of soil, which are believed to play several important roles:

  • Mobilizing existing soil nutrients, so that good growth is achieved with lower nutrient densities while wasting less
  • Releasing nutrients at a slower, more consistent rate, helping to avoid a boom-and-bust pattern
  • Helping to retain soil moisture, reducing the stress due to temporary moisture stress
  • Improving the soil structure

Organics also have the advantage of avoiding certain long-term problems associated with the regular heavy use of artificial fertilizers:

  • the possibility of "burning" plants with the concentrated chemicals (i.e. an over supply of some nutrients)
  • the progressive decrease of real or perceived "soil health", apparent in loss of structure, reduced ability to absorb precipitation, lightening of soil color, etc.
  • the necessity of reapplying artificial fertilizers regularly (and perhaps in increasing quantities) to maintain fertility
  • the cost (substantial and rising in recent years) and resulting lack of independence

Organic fertilizers also have their disadvantages:

  • As acknowledged above, they are typically a dilute source of nutrients compared to inorganic fertilizers, and where significant amounts of nutrients are required for profitable yields, very large amounts of organic fertilizers must be applied. This results in prohibitive transportation and application costs, especially where the agriculture is practiced a long distance from the source of the organic fertilizer.
  • The composition of organic fertilizers tends to be highly variable, so that accurate application of nutrients to match plant production is difficult. Hence, large-scale agriculture tends to rely on inorganic fertilizers while organic fertilizers are cost-effective on small-scale horticultural or domestic gardens.
  • Organic fertilizers are far more likely to contain pathogens harmful to humans or plants. The deadly 2006 "outbreaks" of e. coli on spinach in the United States was a result of organic gardening techniques. This happens becaue the fertilizers, by definition, come from natural sources, often including animal feces or plant/animal matter (fish parts, et cetera). Organic fertilizer, too, is not processed and sterilized, whereas inorganic fertilizer, of course, is chemically created and therefore lacking the bacteria, viruses, and other parasites that may be in organic sources.

In practice a compromise between the use of artificial and organic fertilizers is common, typically by using inorganic fertilizers supplemented with the application of organics that are readily available such as the return of crop residues or the application of manure.

It is important to differentiate between what we mean by organic fertilizers and fertilizers approved for use in organic farming and organic gardening by organizations and authorities who provide organic certification services. Some approved fertilizers may be inorganic, naturally occurring chemical compounds, e.g. minerals...

Excessive nitrogen fertilizer applications can lead to pest problems by in creasing the birth rate, longevity and overall fitness of certain pests (Jahn 2004; Jahn et al. 2001a,b, 2005; Preap et al. 2002, 2001).

It is also possible to over-apply organic fertilizers. However: their nutrient content, their solubility, and their release rates are typically much lower than chemical fertilizers, partially because by their nature, most organic fertilizers also provide increased physical and biological storage mechanisms to soils.

The problem that we face of over-fertilization is primarily associated with the use of artificial fertilizers, because of the massive quantities applied and the destructive nature of chemical fertilizers on soil nutrient holding structures. The high solubilities of chemical fertilizers also exacerbate their tendency to degrade ecosystems.

Storage and application of some fertilizers in some weather or soil conditions can cause emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Ammonia gas (NH3) may be emitted following application of inorganic fertilizers, or manure or slurry. Besides supplying nitrogen, ammonia can also increase soil acidity (lower pH, or "souring").

For these reasons, it is recommended that knowledge of the nutrient content of the soil and nutrient requirements of the crop are carefully balanced with application of nutrients in inorganic fertiliser especially. This process is called nutrient budgeting. By careful monitoring of soil conditions, farmers can avoid wasting expensive fertilizers, and also avoid the potential costs of cleaning up any pollution created as a byproduct of their farming.

The concentration of up to 100 mg/kg of Cadmium in phosphate minerals (for example Nauru[3] and the Christmas islands[4]) increases the contamination of soil with Cadmium, for example in New Zealand.[5] Uranium is another example for impurities of fertilizers


  1. UK Fertilisers Regulations 1990, Schedule 2 Part 1, Para. 7.
  2. Lawrence, Felicity (2004). "214". in Kate Barker. Not on the Label. Penguin. pp. 213. ISBN 0-14-101566-7. 
  3. Syers JK, Mackay AD, Brown MW, Currie CD (1986). "Chemical and physical characteristics of phosphate rock materials of varying reactivity". J Sci Food Agric 37: 1057-1064. 
  4. Trueman NA (1965). "The phosphate, volcanic and carbonate rocks of Christmas Island (Indian Ocean)". J Geol Soc Aust 12: 261-286. 
  5. Taylor MD (1997). "Accumulation of Cadmium derived from fertilisers in New Zealand soils". Science of Total Environment 208: 123-126. 
  • Jahn, GC (2004.). "Effect of soil nutrients on the growth, survival and fecundity of insect pests of rice: an overview and a theory of pest outbreaks with consideration of research approaches. Multitrophic interactions in Soil and Integrated Control.". International Organization for Biological Control (IOBC) wprs Bulletin 27 (1):: 115-122. 
  • Jahn GC, Sanchez ER, Cox PG (2001.). "The Quest for Connections: Developing a research agenda for integrated pest and nutrient management.". IRRI Discussion Paper No. 42, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños (Philippines): 18. [3]
  • Jahn, GC, P.G. Cox., E. Rubia-Sanchez, and M. Cohen (2001.). "The quest for connections: developing a research agenda for integrated pest and nutrient management. pp. 413-430,". S. Peng and B. Hardy [eds.] “Rice Research for Food Security and Poverty Alleviation.” Proceeding the International Rice Research Conference, 31 March – 3 April 2000, Los Baños, Philippines. Los Baños (Philippines): International Rice Research Institute.: 692. 
  • Jahn, GC, LP Almazan, and J Pacia. (2005.). "Effect of nitrogen fertilizer on the intrinsic rate of increase of the rusty plum aphid, Hysteroneura setariae (Thomas) (Homoptera: Aphididae) on rice (Oryza sativa L.).". Environmental Entomology 34 (4):: 938-943. http://puck.esa.catchword.org/vl=33435372/cl=21/nw=1/rpsv/cw/esa/0046225x/v34n4/s26/p938. 
  • Preap, V., M. P. Zalucki, H. J. Nesbitt, and G. C. Jahn (2001.). "Effect of fertilizer, pesticide treatment, and plant variety on realized fecundity and survival rates of Nilaparvata lugens (Stål); Generating Outbreaks in Cambodia.". Journal of Asia Pacific Entomology 4 (1):: 75-84. 
  • Preap, V., MP Zalucki, GC Jahn (2002.). "Effect of nitrogen fertilizer and host plant variety on fecundity and early instar survival of Nilaparvata lugens (Stål): immediate response.". Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Inter-Country Forecasting System and Management for Planthopper in East Asia. November 13-15, 2002. Guilin China. Published by Rural Development Administration (RDA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 2002. Pp: 163-180, 226. 

See also

External links

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