Plant Nutrients in Organic Farming

  • Keith Goulding
  • Elizabeth Stockdale
  • Christine Watson


Effective nutrient management is essential in organic farming systems. Processed soluble fertilisers such as ammonium nitrate, which feed the plant directly and are thought to bypass the natural processes of the soil, are not generally acceptable. Nutrient supply to crop plants is supported through recycling, the management of biologically-related processes such as nitrogen fixation by clover and other legumes, and the limited use of unrefined, slowly-soluble off-farm materials that decompose in the same way as soil minerals or organic matter. The aim is to achieve as far as possible a closed nutrient cycle on the farm and to minimise adverse environmental impact. Effective management of any ‘waste’ materials such as manures and crop residues is a key to nutrient cycling on organic farms. However, not all organic farms have easy access to manures and recycling is limited by the prohibition of the use of sewage sludge because of current concerns over the introduction of potentially toxic elements, organic pollutants and disease transmission. In addition, the current global market, in which food is transported large distances from the farm, results in a significant export of nutrients. Exported nutrients must be replaced to avoid nutrient depletion of soils. Nutrient budgeting suggests some cause for concern over the sustainability of organic systems because of their dependence on feedstuffs and bedding for inputs of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), and on the very variable fixation by legumes or imports of manure or compost for nitrogen (N); air pollution and net mineralisation from soil reserves appear to comprise a large part of the N supply on some organic farms. Losses of N from organic systems can also be as large as those from conventional systems and, being dependent on cultivation and the weather, they are even more difficult to control than those from fertilisers applied to conventional farms. There is some evidence of P deficiency in soils under organic production, and replacing K sold off the farm in produce is especially difficult. Organic farming systems may be sustainable and have the potential to deliver significant environmental benefits, but these depend on specific cropping and management practices on each farm. It is important that we study and improve nutrient management on all farm systems and in the context of plant, animal and human health in order to develop more sustainable farming systems.


Organic farming Plant nutrients Nitrogen (N) Potassium (K) Phosphorus (P) Nutrient budgets Nutrient management Soils 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Keith Goulding
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Stockdale
  • Christine Watson
  1. 1.Cross-Institute Programme for Sustainable Soil Function Rothamsted Research HarpendenHertfordshireUK

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