Organics and Synthetics (An Unbiased Look): Part 1

Over the last couple of decades the divide between the organic growers and the synthetic growers has become the schism of our industry. Debates over the topic often digress into nearly bitter exchanges as growers usually choose one side to belong to and, with willful ignorance, simply write off the opposing side as uninformed or under educated. The inherent complexity of the situation is usually overlooked, with each of the two camps usually claiming unequivocally that their method, be it organic or synthetic, is not only the best but also the most righteous. Wrapped up tightly within a certain belief, many growers are unable to take an open-minded look at the opposing sides viewpoint. But, as I have found, growers that can remove all bias from their minds and take a clear-headed look at the debate will be quick to notice that the issue is not as completely black and white as they once thought.

Part 1 is an unbiased breakdown of some of the more notable pros and cons attributed to organics and Part 2 will focus on the pros and cons of synthetics.

Organics Plant Food Pros:

  • Contain no soluble salts– By definition, true organic plant foods contain natural sources of the elemental nutrients essential to plant growth. The nutrients exist as part of an organic matrix of sorts and are attached to a carbon (C) molecule by a strong, stable bond. Elements in this form are free of soluble salts and their use will not result in salt build within the rooting medium. The result is a root zone that will not require additional flushing to get rid of said build up.
  • Improve the biology of the rooting medium– Organic plant foods require microbial decomposition before they will release the elemental nutrients held within. This means that the organic matter will serve directly as a food source for actively growing microorganisms, like beneficial bacteria and fungi. The more biologically active the rooting medium is, in both container and soil gardening, the faster the organic materials will be broken down. This will release the nutrients that are readily available for uptake via the roots.
  • Most are sustainably sourced– This is especially true with products that receive an organic certification from a reputable certifying agency. These products are looked at with heavy scrutiny to ensure that they are both safe and sustainably sourced. For example, the manufactures of an OMRI certified earthworm casting product must provide illicit proof that the food source the worms consume to create the castings is also organically sourced. Other organic plant food products, including bone meal, blood meal and poultry manure, are actually the product of a completely different industry, such as slaughterhouses and egg farms.
  • Safe to use– A major marketing point for organics is the fact that organic plant foods are safe for people, plants and pets. When it comes to the vast majority of these products, the user doesn’t need to take any safety precautions when applying or handling. However, some products are rather dusty, which can be irritating. I would advise, when applying large amounts, to wear a dust mask just in case.

Organic Plant Food Cons:

  • Nutrients are not immediately available– As was stated earlier, the elemental plant nutrients contained within organic fertilizers are bonded tightly to a carbon molecule. Microorganisms must first degrade that bond before the nutrients are released in a form that is readily available to plants roots. This can leave the grower with an uncertainty as to how much of a certain nutrient will be available and exactly when it will be present. Most growers are not fans of uncertainty.
  • Not the most reliable source of nitrogen (N)– Finding a sufficient source of nitrogen is one of the main struggles an organic grower will encounter. Organic matter does not contain a sufficient supply of nitrogen to satisfy the needs of crops like corn, tomatoes and cucumbers. This problem is compounded by the slow release nature of organic nutrients. Many soil growers utilize the help of certain nitrogen-fixing cover crops to try and raise the level of nitrogen in the soil.
  • Usually contain unknown “accompanying” elements- Simply stated, organic plant foods come from living organisms, be it plant or animal. While these organisms were alive and growing, they required the same elements that the plants in a garden require. Hence, the reason these products are used as fertilizers. However, the overall array of nutrients is often horrifically understated on the product labels. A couple years back, I participated in a small study where we sampled 6 different earthworm casting products and had them analyzed for their elemental nutrient content. To our surprise, all of the products contained not only micronutrients, but also secondary and primary as well. The vast majority of these elements were not present on the product label. Imagine a grower that is using a casting with an NPK value of 1-0-0, without the slightest clue that the product actually contains a wide variety of “accompanying” elements. Without this information, it is easy for the grower to unknowing and accidentally create a severe imbalance in the rooting zone. If a grower is planning on using an organic input product in a commercial operation, I would strongly recommend getting it tested by a lab to see exactly what it contains.
  • Risky for traditional hydroponics- Though organics can be used in hydroponics, it should be down wisely and with caution. The first problem is the fact that the organic material needs to be further broken down. In hydroponics, the nutrients are delivered directly to the roots in a readily available form, designed for immediate uptake by the plant. The question then arises, where and how will the organic material breakdown and be converted to available plant nutrients? This may result in a complete waste of the organic fertilizer. The second possibly problematic aspect of organics in hydroponics is the biological nature of organics. The introduction of a biologically active component into a more or less sterilized system can easily result in the attraction of many different pests and diseases.
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