Fertilizer is fascinating. Most know that it increases soil fertility when growing plants and crops. Few know that when we eat food made with fertilizer, we are essentially eating fossil fuels. I wrote in my book Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: “Fertilizer is made from ammonia, which is made from hydrogen, which is made from natural gas. That makes it a fossil fuel product; so when we eat food made with nitrogen fertilizers, we’re essentially eating fossil fuels.”
Now fertilizer costs are skyrocketing, driving up food prices. Increases in natural gas prices caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine always resulted in higher food costs, as Russia provided 22.4% of fertilizer imported into the US. Plus, there’s the gear. According to the Financial Times, “The price of diesel, which farmers need to fuel their tractors, trucks and harvesters, has risen to nearly $5 a gallon.”
But one should always look on the bright side of life, as Bloomberg journalists do in a recent article titled “The Fertilizer Shock Might Change Agriculture – For the Better.” They describe how bad the situation is with shortages and price increases of up to 22% and write:
“In the midst of such dire predictions, it may sound callous to speak of a silver lining. But the fertilizer shock of 2022 could end up paying similar dividends as the twin oil shocks of the 1970s. The Arab oil embargo brought the US economy to its knees, but it also ignited an energy conservation movement that has transformed America’s auto and construction industries, to name just two. Under pressure from Asian competitors, Detroit’s Big Three introduced more compact, fuel-efficient cars. Insulation and household appliances reduced energy consumption at home.”
It’s an interesting analogy; The oil shocks sparked the energy efficiency boom in our homes and buildings as regulations to reduce fossil fuel use were tightened. Many have complained that this has resulted in larger homes and SUVs eating up much of the energy savings, but the consensus is we’re still ahead.
Bloomberg suggests that as fertilizer becomes more expensive, farmers will use it more carefully and waste less of it. More and more farmers are testing the soil and practicing “precision farming”.
There are many benefits to reducing fertilizer. There is a huge problem of nutrient pollution – the excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water bodies, mostly coming from agricultural runoff. There are carbon dioxide emissions from the production of ammonia, which are estimated to be between 1% and 1.8% of global emissions. Bloomberg also notes that “microbes in the soil break down fertilizers and release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which pound for pound is 300 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the planet.”
In its “Farm to Fork 2020” strategy, the European Union has set itself the goal of reducing nutrient pollution and writes:
“Due to overexploitation and the fact that not all nutrients used in agriculture are effectively absorbed by plants, [fertilizer] is another major source of air, soil and water pollution and climate impacts. It has reduced biodiversity in rivers, lakes, wetlands and seas. The Commission will take action to reduce nutrient losses by at least 50% while ensuring soil fertility is not compromised. This will reduce fertilizer use by at least 20% by 2030.”
That was before they had a war on their hands and needed to reduce natural gas consumption or imports from Russia.
As past experience with cars and buildings has shown, change happens fastest when there is an economic incentive. Everyone has an interest in reducing fertilizer use, but the farmer paying for it has the biggest incentive.
Silver linings can be painful. Higher gasoline and natural gas prices can reduce demand and help protect the environment, but they hurt many people who may fall into fuel poverty. Higher food prices are forcing some to make difficult decisions between food and fuel.
Ultimately, fertilizer prices threaten food security around the world as less fertilizer means fewer crops. And how this affects developed versus developing countries is undeniable. Bloomberg reports: “And in developing countries that already face high levels of food insecurity? Reduced fertilizer use carries the risk of malnutrition, political unrest and ultimately the otherwise avoidable loss of life.”
The answer should be to solve the demand problem: make our homes more efficient, encourage alternatives to gas-powered cars, and reduce fertilizer use without jeopardizing the food security of vulnerable communities.