Why we need a solar-powered farming system

20 April 2012

‘Too much nitrogen harms the environment and the economy’

A new Soil Association report, to be launched next week [Wed 25 April] at a House of Commons agro-ecology event [1], calls for farming to become less dependent on manufactured nitrogen fertiliser, and makes the case for a transformation of our current farming system to one that obtains nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing legumes. New evidence suggests that systems using this type of nitrogen behave differently in terms of nitrogen retention and loss, and a move away from manufactured nitrogen would also help mitigate the climate change impact of farming and guard against the increasing cost of artificial nitrogen. [2]

‘Too much nitrogen harms the environment and the economy’ was the key message from the recent European Nitrogen Assessment which reported a study by 200 scientists investigating the unprecedented changes humans have made to the global nitrogen cycle over the last century. [3]

Through industrial processes, burning fossil fuels and growing crops, the supply of reactive nitrogen [4] into the environment has doubled in the last 100 years. The biggest source of this reactive nitrogen is from the industrial manufacture of fertiliser for farming. This energy intensive process produces high levels of nitrous oxide [5] and uses natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel, which will get more expensive as supplies get scarce. This will put an upward pressure on fertiliser and food prices and poses a long-term threat to our food security.

The report - Just say N2O: From manufactured fertiliser to biologically-fixed nitrogen -  reviews the extent to which organic systems can meet the double challenge of reducing nitrogen losses and building stores of soil organic nitrogen in order to reduce dependency on manufactured nitrogen. The use of manufactured nitrogen is not allowed in organic systems, so inputs of nitrogen come from nitrogen fixed by legumes, often clover leys as part of a crop rotation that also controls pest and diseases.

Scientific evidence shows that the lower nitrogen inputs in organic farming can lead to lower N2O emissions compared to non-organic farms although more research is needed in a number of key areas. We are calling on the Government to look at the issue of reducing our dependency on manufactured nitrogen, and increasing efficiency of nitrogen use, as a matter of urgency.

Emma Hockridge, head of policy at the Soil Association, said:
“We have a worrying dependence on manufactured fertiliser for our food supply. Making the most efficient use of limited nitrogen inputs will, by necessity, become a key driver for future proofing our farming systems. Current policy and proposed technological-fixes to deal with the problems caused by manufactured nitrogen are either woefully inadequate, or unlikely to deliver within the time-frame needed. Although not perfect, organic farming systems offer viable solutions to the problem of over dependence on manufactured nitrogen.”


For press enquiries and to request a copy of the report please contact the Soil Association press office:
Clio Turton, press office manager - 0117 914 2448 / 07795 562 556
Josh Stride, press & e-communications officer – 0117 314 5170 / 07717 802 183

Notes to editor:

[1] House of Commons event: The Death of British Farmland?
Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, Professor Mark Kibblewhite and Peter Melchett will be presenting their thoughts and ideas on the critical issues around soil quality, biology, fertility, nitrate use and management in the UK as well as discussing what practical actions needs to be undertaken to help halt the degradation of British soil.
Chaired by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer and co-hosted by The Food Ethics Council.
Wednesday 25 April 2012, 1pm – 3pm, House of Commons Committee Room 14.

[2] Just say N2O: From manufactured fertiliser to biologically-fixed nitrogen - the report will be available on the Soil Association website from Wed 25 April.

[3] ‘European Nitrogen Assessment’, click here to read more.

[4] Reactive N is usually defined as all other forms except for N2. This includes oxidized nitrogen (NO, NO2, N03) and reduced forms of nitrogen (NH4+, NH3 and organic nitrogen).

[5] Nitrous oxide (N2O)is a powerful greenhouse gas. N2O makes up 54% of the UK’s agricultural GHG emissions.


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