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The Carbon Footprint of Fertilization with Manure and

Composted Manure

Climate change is increasingly accepted as a significant threat and

there is building consensus that steps should be taken in all industries
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The proponents of Organic
farming often make the claim that organic farming is superior in terms
of its impact on “Global Warming” or more appropriately, “Climate
Change.” The Rodale Institute, the organization that introduced the US
to the concept of organic in the 1950s, has published a white paper
claiming that Organic farming can be “a solution” to climate change
(LaSalle 2008), .

It is widely believed that crops grown under the rules of “USDA

Organic” have a more desirable “carbon footprint” because they have
not received synthetic fertilizers or crop protection chemicals that are
manufactured using fossil fuels. The marketers of Organic foods often
make this claim

as do it’s non farming supporters

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“Personal carbon footprint calculators” often give positive credit for

consumption of Organic food including the one on the web site of the
Nature Conservancy, a respected environmental advocate.

Are these assertions accurate? There are several reasons to

question the superiority of Organic (land use efficiency,
dependency on tillage…) but probably the least recognized issue
has to do with fertilization.

“Embedded Carbon” in Fertilizers

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer contains “embedded carbon dioxide

emissions” based on the fossil energy used in the Haber-Bosch process
to produce Ammonia from atmospheric di-nitrogen gas, later chemical
steps 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 CO2-
carbon per pound of nitrogen in the fertilizer (West 2002, Robertson
2000, Snyder 2007). Fertilizers which include ammonium nitrate have
higher “footprints” of 2.6 lbs CO2-C/lb because some nitrous oxide is
released during their manufacture and this gas is 310 times as potent
as CO2 in terms of global warming potential (Snyder 2007, EPA 2004).

Many “Life Cycle Analyses” of Organic production have assumed no

greenhouse gas emissions for the manures and composts that are
major sources of nitrogen fertilization for Organic production (LaSalle
2008, Teasdale 2007, Robertson 2000). The Rodale Institute document
cited above (LaSalle 2008) does not even mention the words
“methane” or “nitrous oxide.” The zero emission assumption in these
publications fails to consider methane emissions that are well
documented from the storage and composting of manure. Since
methane 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 is
potentially “carbon neutral,” that is only the case if it is eventually
released as CO2, not if it is converted to a more potent greenhouse gas.

It could be argued that this particular “carbon footprint” should be

assigned to the “life cycle analysis” of the animal production system
rather than to Organic (or conventional) farming, but that logic fails to
recognize the fact that the handling practices for manure intended for
application to crops is specifically oriented to that use as opposed to
other manure management options. Since animals produce manure on
a daily basis, and crop fertilization is only practiced at specific times
during the year, manure must be stored for crop use. If the manure is
going to be used to fertilize a crop directly consumed by humans, it is
necessary to compost it to reduce the risk of contamination of that
food with human pathogens. Thus greenhouse gasses emitted during
the storage or composting process should appropriately be considered
as “embedded carbon emissions” in the fertilizer. The best practice for
animal manures is not to use them as fertilizers but to use an
anaerobic digester to convert the manure carbon to a clean, carbon
neutral fuel (Voell 2008).

The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) assumes that for

most reasonably careful storage conditions, on the order of 1-2% of the
original carbon in the manure is converted to methane though much
higher conversions are possible (IPCC 2006). Thus, for a typical straw-
bedded bovine manure (Hao 2004) with 1.99% nitrogen and 330.5 kg
carbon/Mg, the methane emissions during storage would represent
between 3.3 and 6.6 kg methane-carbon/Mg (Table 1). Converting that
to CO2 equivalents per kg of nitrogen demonstrates that fertilization
with stored manure has a carbon footprint many times as large as that
from many synthetic sources (Table 1).

Table 1. Calculation of embedded carbon in stored manure

Methane conversion
assumption (% of original 1% 1.5% 2%
carbon converted)
Nitrogen content kg N/Mg dry
19.92 19.92 19.92
weight of manure*
Kg Manure to supply 1 kg N
50.2 50.2 50.2
(dry weight)
Starting Carbon kg C/Mg
330.5 330.5 330.5
Manure (dry weight basis)*
Methane emissions Kg CH4-
3.31 4.96 6.61
Methane emissions as kg
.0694 .1041 .1388
CO2-C equiv/kg manure**
GHG emissions on a nitrogen
3.48 5.23 6.97
basis, kg CO2-C equiv/kg N
Ratio to synthetic Urea at 1.2
2.9 4.4 5.8
kg CO2-C equiv/kg N

* Hao 2004
**Conversion factor for methane to carbon dioxide equivalents 21
(IPCC 2006)

Hao et al (Hao 2004) measured the greenhouse gas emissions from a

commercial-scale composting operation in Canada, which involved
eight “turns” over a 99-day composting process. 53% of the original
carbon was released during the composting process. 8.92 kg of
methane-carbon was released for every Mg of original manure (dry
weight). 30.1 percent of the original mass was lost. Between
methane, nitrous oxide and fuel use, 202.6 kg CO2-C equiv were
emitted for every kg of original manure on a dry weight basis. The
nitrogen content of the composted manure was 16.6 kg N/Mg dry
weight. On a dry weight basis it would take 86.2 kg of original manure
to deliver 1 lb of Nitrogen fertilizer. That would mean that for every 1
kg of N fertilizer, the “embedded” carbon in the compost represented
17.46 kg CO2-C equiv, 14.6 times as much as that for synthetic urea.
This issue is not limited to manure composting. A study of composting
grass and other green waste found that 0.5% of the nitrogen was
emitted as nitrous oxide and 1.7% of the carbon was emitted as
methane. These would also translate into a very substantial “carbon
footprint.” (Hellebrand 1998).

This analysis suggests that major sources of nitrogen for Organic crops,
manure and composts, entail far more “embedded carbon emissions”
than synthetic nitrogen sources. These emissions are more than
sufficient to cancel-out carbon sequestration gains that might be
achieved by the use of organic fertilizers (Robertson 2000, Teasdale
2007). Based on the unexpectedly large “carbon footprint” of manure
and compost fertilization, the widely held assumption that Organic
agriculture is better for climate change must be questioned. It is also
appropriate to reconsider whether an administration that respects
science and is finally trying to do something about climate change
should simultaneously be striving to increase organic farm acreage.

Steven D. Savage, Ph.D.


EPA, Unit Conversions, Emissions Factors, and Other Reference Data


Hao, X., Chang, C., Larney F.J. Carbon, nitrogen balances and
greenhouse gas emission during cattle feedlot manure composting. J.
Environ. Qual. 33:37-44 (2004).

Hellebrand, H.J. Emission of nitrous oxide and other trace gases during
composting of grass and green waste. Engineering Research 69:365-
375 (1998).

IPCC. Emissions from Livestock and Manure Management. 2006 IPCC

guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Table 10.17

LaSalle, T.J., Hepperly, P.H. Regenerative Organic Farming: A Solution to

Global Warming. ©2008, Rodale Institute.
Phillips, R Organic agriculture and nitrous oxide emissions at sub-zero
soil temperatures. J. Environ. Qual. 36:23-30 (2007)

Reicosky, D.C., Hatfield, J.L., Sass, R.L. Agricultural Contributions to

greenhouse gas emissions. Chapter 3 in Climate Change and Global
Crop Productivity, eds K.R. Reddy, H.F. Hodges, ©CAB International

Robertson, G.P., Paul, E.A., Harwood, R.R. Greenhouse Gases in

Intensive Agriculture; Contributions of Individual Gases to the Radiative
Forcing of the Atmosphere. Science 289: 1922-1925 (2000).

Teasdale, J.R., Coffman, C.B., Magnum, R.W. Potential long-term

benefits of no-tillage and organic cropping systems for grain production
and soil improvement. Agro. J. 99:1297-1305 (2007).

Voell, C. Anaerobic digesters for manure methane capture and use.


West, T.O., Marland, G. A synthesis of carbon sequestration, carbon

emissions and net carbon flux in agriculture: comparing tillage
practices in the United States. Agriculture, Ecosystems and
Environment 91:217-232 (2002)

Wagner-Riddle, C., Thurtell, G.W. Nitrous oxide emissions from

agricultural fields during winter and spring thaw as affected by
management practices. Earth and Environment Science 52:151-163