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Carbon Footprint of Organic Fertilizer

Carbon Footprint of Organic Fertilizer



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Published by Steve Savage
It is widely claimed that organic fertilizers are better for the environment because they don't involve the "carbon footprint" of fossil fuel from manufacturing. It turns out that methane and nitrous oxide emissions during the storage and composting of these fertilizers entails a far larger footprint then that of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
It is widely claimed that organic fertilizers are better for the environment because they don't involve the "carbon footprint" of fossil fuel from manufacturing. It turns out that methane and nitrous oxide emissions during the storage and composting of these fertilizers entails a far larger footprint then that of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Steve Savage on Jul 15, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Carbon Footprint of Fertilization with Manure andComposted Manure
Climate change is increasingly accepted as a significant threat andthere is building consensus that steps should be taken in all industriesto reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The proponents of Organicfarming often make the claim that organic farming is superior in termsof its impact on “Global Warming” or more appropriately, “ClimateChange.” The Rodale Institute, the organization that introduced the USto the concept of organic in the 1950s, has published a white paperclaiming that Organic farming can be “a solution” to climate change(LaSalle 2008),
.It is widely believed that crops grown under the rules of “USDAOrganic” have a more desirable “carbon footprint” because they havenot received synthetic fertilizers or crop protection chemicals that aremanufactured using fossil fuels. The marketers of Organic foods oftenmake this claim
 as do it’s non farming supporters(
“Personal carbon footprint calculators” often give positive credit forconsumption of Organic food including the one on the web site of theNature Conservancy, a respected environmental advocate.
Are these assertions accurate? There are several reasons toquestion the superiority of Organic (land use efficiency,dependency on tillage…) but probably the least recognized issuehas to do with fertilization.
“Embedded Carbon” in Fertilizers
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer contains “embedded carbon dioxideemissions” based on the fossil energy used in the Haber-Bosch processto produce Ammonia from atmospheric di-nitrogen gas, later chemicalsteps to generate other forms of nitrogen, and from fuel used to
transport fertilizers from production sites to farms. For most forms of nitrogen this “footprint” represents approximately .8 to 1.2 lbs of CO
-carbon per pound of nitrogen in the fertilizer (West 2002, Robertson2000, Snyder 2007). Fertilizers which include ammonium nitrate havehigher “footprints” of 2.6 lbs CO
-C/lb because some nitrous oxide isreleased during their manufacture and this gas is 310 times as potentas CO2 in terms of global warming potential (Snyder 2007, EPA 2004).Many “Life Cycle Analyses” of Organic production have assumed nogreenhouse gas emissions for the manures and composts that aremajor sources of nitrogen fertilization for Organic production (LaSalle2008, Teasdale 2007, Robertson 2000). The Rodale Institute documentcited above (LaSalle 2008) does not even mention the words“methane” or “nitrous oxide.” The zero emission assumption in thesepublications fails to consider methane emissions that are welldocumented from the storage and composting of manure. Sincemethane is 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas(EPA 2004), even small emissions can represent a significant“footprint.” Even though the carbon that gives rise to this emission ispotentially “carbon neutral,” that is only the case if it is eventuallyreleased as CO
, not if it is converted to a more potent greenhouse gas.It could be argued that this particular “carbon footprint” should beassigned to the “life cycle analysis” of the animal production systemrather than to Organic (or conventional) farming, but that logic fails torecognize the fact that the handling practices for manure intended forapplication to crops is specifically oriented to that use as opposed toother manure management options. Since animals produce manure ona daily basis, and crop fertilization is only practiced at specific timesduring the year, manure must be stored for crop use. If the manure isgoing to be used to fertilize a crop directly consumed by humans, it isnecessary to compost it to reduce the risk of contamination of thatfood with human pathogens. Thus greenhouse gasses emitted duringthe storage or composting process should appropriately be consideredas “embedded carbon emissions” in the fertilizer. The best practice foranimal manures is not to use them as fertilizers but to use ananaerobic digester to convert the manure carbon to a clean, carbonneutral fuel (Voell 2008). The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) assumes that formost reasonably careful storage conditions, on the order of 1-2% of theoriginal carbon in the manure is converted to methane though muchhigher conversions are possible (IPCC 2006). Thus, for a typical straw-bedded bovine manure (Hao 2004) with 1.99% nitrogen and 330.5 kgcarbon/Mg, the methane emissions during storage would representbetween 3.3 and 6.6 kg methane-carbon/Mg (Table 1). Converting that
to CO
equivalents per kg of nitrogen demonstrates that fertilizationwith stored manure has a carbon footprint many times as large as thatfrom many synthetic sources (Table 1). Table 1. Calculation of embedded carbon in stored manureMethane conversionassumption (% of originalcarbon converted)1%1.5%2%Nitrogen content kg N/Mg dryweight of manure*19.9219.9219.92Kg Manure to supply 1 kg N(dry weight) Carbon kg C/MgManure (dry weight basis)*330.5330.5330.5Methane emissions Kg CH
-C/Mg3.314.966.61Methane emissions as kgCO
-C equiv/kg manure**.0694.1041.1388GHG emissions on a nitrogenbasis, kg CO
-C equiv/kg N3.485.236.97Ratio to synthetic Urea at 1.2kg CO
-C equiv/kg N2.94.45.8* Hao 2004**Conversion factor for methane to carbon dioxide equivalents 21(IPCC 2006)Hao et al (Hao 2004) measured the greenhouse gas emissions from acommercial-scale composting operation in Canada, which involvedeight “turns” over a 99-day composting process. 53% of the originalcarbon was released during the composting process. 8.92 kg of methane-carbon was released for every Mg of original manure (dryweight). 30.1 percent of the original mass was lost. Betweenmethane, nitrous oxide and fuel use, 202.6 kg CO
-C equiv wereemitted for every kg of original manure on a dry weight basis. Thenitrogen content of the composted manure was 16.6 kg N/Mg dryweight. On a dry weight basis it would take 86.2 kg of original manureto deliver 1 lb of Nitrogen fertilizer. That would mean that for every 1kg of N fertilizer, the “embedded” carbon in the compost represented17.46 kg CO
-C equiv, 14.6 times as much as that for synthetic urea.

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