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A ‘New’ Discovery – Soluble Nitrogen Destroys Soil Carbon

How many times must we ‘discover’ something we’ve discovered before – particularly when our lives and our futures depend on reacting appropriately, and shaping society, to incorporate the lessons learned?

One of the most transformative experiences in my life was from studying soil science many years ago. Getting something of an understanding of the inner workings of that thin skin which covers our earth created thought-connections in my mind that had me looking at the world in a profoundly new way.

Amongst the many things I realised and gained appreciation for was the myriad mechanisms in natural systems that, in concert with each other, provided incredible stability and harmony. I recognised that if only many more people would come to study and learn genuine, holistic, biological soil science (rather than the reductionist chemistry- and product-focussed ‘science’ encouraged in universities today by industry) we are actually well able to mimic these systems to bring the same harmony into our own fields, and thus retain resilience whilst still providing for our needs. We could give back to the soil as much as we take. Indeed, we could even reverse our current soil inventory deficit by building soil.

I learned that the carbon cycle was a, or the, critical element. Contrary to popular belief, water soluble nitrogen applications actually depletes soil carbon, rather than builds it – because soil micro-organisms, if I am to use simplistic terminology, feed on nitrogen, and excess soluble supplies send them into a frenzy of activity. That activity is focussed on breaking down organic matter (carbon rich humus). Regular dousings of water-soluble nitrogen fertiliser (and yes, that also includes concentrated chicken litter and blood meal) turns our microscopic soil buddies into hyperactive, and short lived, soil baddies. The same thing occurs with over-aeration of soil from ploughing and other manipulations. The result is rapid plant growth, but at the expense of plant health – and, significantly, resulting in our effectively burning up the organic matter content in our soils, without which there can be no life on this earth.

I learned these things a decade and a half ago, and from reading books decades older, and yet today we still find articles titled ‘New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health‘.

The case for synthetic N as a climate stabilizer goes like this. Dousing farm fields with synthetic nitrogen makes plants grow bigger and faster. As plants grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air. Some of the plant is harvested as crop, but the rest—the residue—stays in the field and ultimately becomes soil. In this way, some of the carbon gobbled up by those N-enhanced plants stays in the ground and out of the atmosphere.

Well, that logic has come under fierce challenge from a team of University of Illinois researchers led by professors Richard Mulvaney, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth. In two recent papers (see here and here) the trio argues that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues.

And their analysis gets more alarming…. – Grist (emphasis ours)

This is an excellent article that I’d recommend all to read and absorb. But, the worrying aspect is that we’re calling it ‘new research‘. The things I learned years ago have been known for decades, something the article above expresses also – quoting from renowned organic pioneer, Sir Albert Howard, from the 1940s – but in a competition- and product-oriented world it has not been a popular concept, because widespread uptake and implementation of this knowledge would make most agricultural products not only redundant, but they’d also be seen as an enemy to sustainable, and healthy, human existence.

The ‘self-interest’ basis of our western ‘invisible structures’ (economics, politics, etc.) is the foundational motivation that ensures extraction today with little thought for tomorrow. We create a perception of need, by creating problems that don’t, or shouldn’t, exist – so we can simultaneously create saleable ‘solutions’ for them. The self-interest, economy-must-grow mindset thus either consistently ignores or, as is the case here, actively obscures important ecological truths.

How many times will we ‘discover’ these facts? How many times must we re-invent the wheel? As long as profits are the basis of our society, and private interests the controlling powers, then this information will never reach momentum. Why? Because when schools operate for the public good, unbiased, non-commercialised research can be undertaken with taxpayer dollars. When private interests reign, and schools operate without government support, then schools either close, or get funded by BigAgri.

While it’s clear that funding cash is the carrot used by agribusiness to entice researchers into asking the questions industry is most interested in having answered, there is a stick involved: corporately held patents used to block them from asking others. – Monsanto U: Agribusiness’s Takeover of Public Schools

It should be no surprise that the privatisation of our schooling systems worldwide has helped BigAgri propagandise the next generation and has leveraged their control of the world’s food systems.

Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium
on the Menu. Courtesy: Marc Roberts

As our soils continue to degrade through the use of Big Agri’s ‘products’, I see an explosion of social and environmental disasters coming to pass. Amongst all the obvious issues, there will also be an ever-increasing public health disaster as the nutrient density of the ‘food’ grown on ever-more-inert, ever-more-lifeless, soils continues to diminish.

We often call this an agricultural treadmill. Our use of nitrogen depletes soils, creating the need for more nitrogen applications. The resulting unbalanced, nutrient-starved plants attract legions of insects, resulting in the need for increasing pesticide applications. The land’s natural effort to restore balance causes soil-restoring plants to spring up (some call them ‘weeds’), inspiring farmers to douse their land with herbicides. In both cases we’re effectively pouring poison on our own food. That’s not smart – but we’ve somehow come to regard it as normal.

Things progressively deteriorate in a downward spiral, but instead of solving the root issue we instead move to genetic engineering to try to patch things up.

Now, you probably assume the ‘root issue’ I’m talking about is our lack of understanding of soil science. And, you’d be right. But perhaps even deeper is the root issue of the kind of economics we base our society on – the kind of economics whose existence relies on obscuring the truth, to preserve and grow a customer base. This entire agricultural treadmill is caused by ‘self-interest’ perpetually expressing itself in creating desire and/or need for products that should not exist, and the genetic tinkering of plant genes is an effort to see if we can’t get nature to adapt to the economic framework we’ve built, rather than discover and build a social framework that can work harmoniously with her unchangeable laws.

Using the term treadmill is arguably increasingly inappropriate too, as it leads people to think it can continue ad infinitum. The reality is we’re now watching it collapse. Just as we’ve all but completely exhausted our soils with the fossil fuel based Green Revolution, we’re also at, or fast approaching, peak oil.

Let’s stop calling this ‘new research’. This knowledge needs to saturate and become ‘established fact’ in our school systems, and our school systems need to fulfil the needs of society, not private interests, to help transition us to a world where we recognise our place in the carbon cycle, amongst all the other interdependent elements within the biosphere.

The Dark Side of Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers


P.S. If you can’t wait for a widespread transformation in our mainstream educational institutions (I’m turning blue as I hold my breath), and want to understand more about soil science now – then I’d really encourage you to take Paul Taylor’s excellent five-day course on the topic. Check our course listings for dates.


  1. Thanks for the article Craig.

    Is the nitrogen fixed by leguminous plants water soluble?

    I’ve begun to worry that I’m growing too many wattles and pigeon peas plants.

  2. G’day,

    This is of course nothing new to many of us….for a long time now I have been working to convince farmers that 2% Organic Carbon in a functional soil is not ‘robbing the crop N’ and that its about 6-10% less than they need in their soils….Conventional agronomists have long held the view (its on every soil test I’ve ever seen from these guys – have a look here: that 2% OC is high and that you need to reduce this down otherwise your crops will starve! How do you achieve this target? Use a combo of nitrogenous fertilisers, tillage (oxidisation) and negate biotic functions both in and on the soil. Any wonder agricultural lands the world over are in such a crisis when this moronic paradigm prevails! Another reason why we are moving ahead with RegenAG, as are PRI, Trust Nature, RCS, Holistic Management International and many many others….

    All the best and thanks Craig for keeping the news real.


  3. Hopkins, Cyril G. Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1910. This is Hopkins’ best-known work and his most thorough exposition of the concept of “permanent agriculture”.

    Permaculture itself is not a new idea. But it was beaten out of common knowledge base by the artificial fertilizer industry which came to dominance in the previous century.

    Cyril G. Hopkins was the Chief Agronomist and eventually Director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station from 1911 to 1919. Hopkins had his own “feed the soil” philosophy which he called “The Illinois System of Permanent Agriculture.” He advanced his ideas that there are only three constituents that must be supplied to soils, limestone, phosphorous, and organic matter that will increase, or at minimum permanently maintain the productive power of the soil.

    He wrote of green manures and how buying factory made fertilizers was a trap both from an economic and productivity basis.

    The end of half a century of advertising blitz and fertilizer salesmanship has resulted in no one remembering Cyril Hopkins anymore.

    Hopkins was well aware of that possibility. He wrote numerous experiment station bulletins encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about his ideas because there was so little to sell. He warned them that the large fertilizer manufacturers were concerned first and foremost with selling and only secondarily with farming. He predicted that the manufacturers would push their products endlessly, until farmers forgot how well agriculture could work with a bare minimum of purchased materials.

    Cyril Hopkins may have lost that struggle and been momentarily forgotten, but the truth of “permanent soil fertility” is still right there in the earth for those of use who care to look.

  4. New research shows that carbon accumulates as “glomalin” and proper grazing (high density (ca. 3000 lbs/acre livestock), VERY short duration (ca. 4 hours) builds soil rapidly, and the added layers with high carbon are measurable in centimeters above previous soil surface. “Mob grazing” is new use of livestock in ultra high density for ultra short time (single season). Only top parts of plants are eaten, and each “cow pie” has at least one hoof-print in it. (monitoring in real time) I recommend seeing this dynamic for yourself. I was skeptical until I saw it working, and now I consider this one of the most important discoveries since the Europeans arrived in North America. Incidentally, in many areas dung beetles bury any residual dung, and aerate the soil and increase infiltration of water.

  5. G’day,

    Interesting thread….couple of things:

    1. ‘…Glomalin is a glycoprotein produced abundantly on hyphae and spores of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in soil and in roots. As a glycoprotein, glomalin stores carbon in both its protein and carbohydrate (glucose or sugar) subunits. It permeates organic matter, binding it to silt, sand, and clay particles. Not only does glomalin contain 30 to 40 percent carbon, but it also forms clumps of soil granules called aggregates. These add structure to soil, and keep other stored soil carbon from escaping. Glomalin was discovered in 1996 by Sara F. Wright, which she named after the Glomales order of fungi. Glomalin is causing a complete reexamination of what makes up soil organic matter. It is increasingly being included in studies of carbon storage and soil quality….’ (ref.

    and more to thank Fungi for!

    ‘….Sara F. Wright, a soil scientist with the ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, discovered glomalin in 1996 and named the substance after Glomeraceae, the taxonomic order of the symbiotic fungi that produce the sticky protein on the roots of vegetation. Recently, she used a nuclear magnetic resonance imager to show that glomalin is structurally different from any other organic matter component, proving it is a distinct entity.

    The fungi live on most plant roots and use the plants’ carbon to produce glomalin. Glomalin is thought to seal and solidify the outside of the fungi’s pipe-like filaments that transport water and nutrients to plants. As the roots grow, glomalin sloughs off into the soil where it acts as super-glue, helping sand, silt and clay particles stick to each other and to the organic matter that brings soil to life. It is glomalin that helps give soil the feel of the glued-together particles and organic matter. The deeper the turf the better it hangs together and can be thrown into the air and caught again. Sand and soil bereft of organic matter and glomalin blow away in a strong wind. The conversion of the Great Plains grasslands of America into dust bowls in some areas demonstrates this.

    Glomalin is a component of the more commonly understood humus, the organic matter that is sometimes called black gold. When it first turned up in humus measurements, it was thought to be a contaminant. Glomalin is not just the glue that holds humus to soil particles; it actually does much of what humus has been credited with. Because there is so much more glomalin in the soil than humic acid, an extractable fraction of humus, glomalin stores 27 percent of total soil carbon, compared to humic acid’s eight percent. It also provides nitrogen to soil and gives it the structure needed to hold water and for proper aeration, movement of plant roots and stability to resist erosion….’ (ref.

    In my various workshops I ask people why do you think these fungi have evolved to produce glomalin? Pretty clear to me in that they are aerobes and therefore need a soil that is breathing and aerated…obviously cultivation and compaction are the enemy of mycorrhizal fungi and certainly the use of powered cultivators, mould boards, discs etc effectively dissect the hyphae thereby reducing the capacity of these amazing organisms to do their thing!

    2. I would consider 3000lbs/acre very low density stocking. My good friends and colleagues’ Abe Collins (VT) and John Wick (CA) along with many other Holistic Managment Planned Grazing practitioners often run closer to 1,000,000 lbs acre of stock density. Mob grazing is different to Planned grazing in that one grazes according to a plan and a set of criteria around managing the sword not just for grazing but also for other ecosystem functions such as surface litter accumulation and accordingly the practice of ‘tall grazing’ occurs where in principle 1/3rd is grazed, 1/3 trampled and 1/3 left increasing cover and reducing recovery time before the next grazing pass can occur. This practice, along with aeration in particular, radically increases the production of these systems including the amount of carbohydrate exudation (glucose) off of root systems. Of course this stands to reason as the more active leaf area and plant density the more glucose production, the more glucose production the more of a feeding frenzy occurs in the soil. Fungi love sugar and plants love soluble minerals so what a party….

    Have some new findings on very rapid soil development that I have to put up….watch this space and in the meantime check out some of Abe’s grazing work on:

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