Here’s a guest post from Rodale Institute CEO Tim LaSalle.

Tom Philpott is right to highlight the tremendous ecological debt we’ve built up by depending on nitrogen fertilizer to run our crop production system. Depending on mined and fossil-fuel produced nitrogen for our food is no more sustainable than depending on peaking oil and mountain-top removed coal for our energy.

There’s no more “cheap” food and fuel, because, really, there never was. The huge irony — currently obscured by the psychological jolt of widespread shortages of food and fuel — is that we were just learning of how not cheap industrial food has been:

1. The Pew Foundation report on industrial livestock production tells the U.S. public that environmental, human health, and livestock treatment short-cuts that made factory farming seem like such a sweet way to get cheap protein simply can’t go on.

2. A global collection of analysts concluded earlier this year that “advanced” farming using high-production technologies has failed to account for the resulting human and environmental costs. Place-specific improvements must take into account traditional wisdom, social implications, and basic water and biodiversity impacts, said the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

3. Even after years of cajoling, state regulating, and badgering by environmentalists, the more than 40,000 Pennsylvania farms located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed discharge 46 percent of the nitrogen and 58 percent of the phosphorus in these waterways. They’re facing stronger regulation, but no new paradigm of how to produce the crops and meat their buyers demand.

Regenerative organic farming does not use synthetic chemical fertilizer — a product without residual benefit — depending instead on a biologically vibrant soil ecosystem that makes timed-release nitrogen available to crops.

Important parts of this system are:

  • Legume crops that interact synergistically with specific soil bacteria to convert free nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms that crops can utilize;
  • Crop rotations to balance fertility needs from year to year;
  • Cover crops which are incorporated into field surface to increase soil organic matter;
  • Compost (made from crop residue, animal manures, and other organic matter) as a soil amendment to improve soil health and biological activity.

It’s like Thomas Friedman said recently of the “big idea” to suspend the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax this summer: “[This] proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way. We are in the midst of a national political brownout.”

We, as a country, have not yet begun to fight for a more sane way to grow the food we need to feed ourselves and to have our farms prosper. The crisis of nitrogen fertilizer supply and affordability is real, but the biggest part of the answer is not to haul or manufacture tons more to support our corn habit, but to simply ask:

What food and feed crops would do better on the fertility we can grow in ways that improve soil, don’t pollute as much, and keep lots more carbon in the soil that non-organic methods?