Magical Thinking on Fertilizer and Climate Change

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By Timothy A. Wise, Senior Advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. Originally published at InterPress Service

As world leaders wrap up the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, new scientific research shows that there is still a great deal of magical thinking about the contribution of fertilizer to global warming.

Philanthropist Bill Gates fed the retreat from science in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster earlier this year. “To me fertilizer is magical,” he confesses, nitrogen fertilizer in particular. Under a photo of a beaming Gates in a Yara fertilizer distribution warehouse in Tanzania, he explains that “to grow crops, you want tons of nitrogen – way more than you would ever find in a natural setting [sic]…. But nitrogen makes climate change much worse.”

That last part, at least, is true, and new research suggests that the climate impacts of excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers is much worse than previously estimated. Researchers estimate that the N-fertilizer supply chain is contributing more than six times the greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by the entire commercial aviation sector.

Nitrogen: A Growing Climate Problem

By all accounts, food and agriculture are barely on the agenda of the UN climate summit, even though food systems contribute about one-third of GHGs. Direct emissions from food production account for about one-third of that, with the principal source being livestock, mostly methane and manure emissions.

But about 10% of direct emissions from come from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops. Only a portion of the applied fertilizer is absorbed by plants. Some is turned into nitrous oxide by soil micro-organisms. Some leaches off the soil or volatilizes into gas when it is applied. The cumulative effect is the release of nitrous oxide, a GHG 265 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Three scientists working with Greenpeace, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and GRAIN have carried out the first comprehensive lifecycle analysis of N fertilizer emissions. They used improved data on direct field emissions and incorporated emissions from the manufacture and transportation of N fertilizers. Manufacturing, which relies heavily on natural gas, accounts for 35% of total N fertilizer GHGs.

The new estimates, which are preliminary as they undergo peer review, are 20% higher than those previously used by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the largest emitters are the largest agricultural producers: China, India, North America, and Europe. On a per capita basis, though, the largest emitters are the big agricultural exporters: United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Taking Africa in the Wrong Direction

Africa is still not a large fertilizer user, with application rates low – about 15 kg/ha – but rising rapidly with the recent Green Revolution campaigns. While Gates essentially dismisses the climate impacts from fertilizer as a necessary evil to achieve the greater good of food security, evidence is growing that the Green Revolution approach is failing on its own terms. My research showed that in AGRA’s 13 focus countries, yields were not growing significantly and the number of undernourished people has increased 31%.

The greater good promised by AGRA has not been very good.

According to the new fertilizer research, AGRA is taking Africa in the wrong direction. Globally, the use of nitrogen fertilizer is projected to grow between 50% and 138% by 2050. Africa is projected to see at least a 300% increase in the next 30 years. It will be far greater if Gates has his way.

The climate implications of that development path are worrisome. A 300% increase means 2.7 million tonnes (Mt) more of N fertilizer in Africa. With field emissions estimated at 2.65 tonnes of GHGs per tonne of nitrogen and another 4.35 tonnes from production and transportation, total emissions are more like 7 tonnes of GHGs per tonne of N fertilizer.

By 2050, a 300% increase in Africa’s fertilizer use would mean adding about 19 Mt of GHGs per year more than it emits now. Because GHGs accumulate in the atmosphere and nitrous oxide persists for more than 100 years, Africa will have contributed an additional 284 Mt of GHGs by 2050 if fertilizer use increases 300%. If Gates and AGRA get their way and Africa approaches current global averages of 137 kg/ha of N fertilizer, Africa would contribute 800% more, an additional 50 Mt in 2050, equivalent to the emissions from deforesting half a million hectares of Amazon rainforest (about 1.2 million acres). Cumulative GHGs would be 750 Mt by 2050.

That is an amount nearly equal to the annual emissions of the entire commercial aviation sector.

“Climate-Stupid Agriculture”

Bill Gates is just plain wrong when he says the only way to grow food is with synthetic fertilizers. Crops need nitrogen and in many areas they can get most or all of what they need from improved agroecological farming. Globally, with improved nutrient management practices there could be a 48% reduction in synthetic fertilizer use with no reduction in cereal yields, according to one article in Nature.

The scientists who authored the new report make three recommendations to reduce GHGs associated with N fertilizer use. All call into question Gates’ Green Revolution model for Africa:

    • • Select a model of agriculture that does not depend on synthetic fertilizers; intercropping with nitrogen-fixing crops has been shown to increase yields and improve soils.
      • Reintegrate livestock into crop farming so more of the nutrients in manure are returned to the land; less than half are now.
      • Limit the growth of industrial livestock production and consumption. Three-quarters of N fertilizer worldwide is used to produce livestock feed.

    The science is clear: African farmers are right when they call the Green Revolution “climate-stupid agriculture.”

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    1. Alice X

      This agribusiness magical thinking will bring us to oblivion. Free Africa before they join us in this trajectory to doom.

    2. Tony

      The problem with your suggestion is that intercropping and livestock grazing are more expensive and labor intensive. Limiting livestock production means that less meat is produced. How is America, which uses monoculture farming and has more cows than people, going to tell Africa to not farm in the same way? Africa will not let it’s people go hungry because of climate change.

      1. Susan the other

        But if these practices are done on a cooperative but small, individual scale they are not more expensive and labor intensive. Only when you get to a level of “productivity” that requires big energy inputs does it become more expensive. In Africa they are well suited to very small scale farming. And it is also more resilient. With all of our chickens coming home to roost, nobody in their right mind is going to emulate American industrialized farming.

      2. Henry Moon Pie

        You’re assuming those Big Ag methods are necessary to “feed the world.” They’re not. We currently produce, by some estimates, twice the food needed but waste at least half of the food produced–throwing most of it in garbage dumps or allowing other animals (avoid the use of “vermin” here) to eat it. n That’s not even counting the absurd amount we feed to farm animals or make into ethanol for cars.

        Moreover, those wonderful methods you think the Africans are begging to follow are destroying the soil. As they are used, like any other addiction, more and more fertilizer and pesticide as required as the natural balance of the local ecosystem and the supporting bacterial and fungal life in the soil is destroyed. Eventually, our Big Aggies are resorting to GMO Frankenplants tinkered with not to improve nutrition or even productivity but to make them able to survive the ever greater amounts of Roundup required to kill the weeds as they adapt.

        Restorative agriculture borrows many techniques from the small, traditional farmers that Big Ag practices drive out of farming just as it has been driving them out of business in the U. S. the last 50 years. It actually puts carbon back in the ground. Done right, agriculture can go from being as serious a carbon emitter as transportation to being a carbon sequesterer. There’s no way we’re avoiding kissing 2.0 degrees good-bye next if that switch isn’t made fast. Gates’s push to take Africa over the brink, drive out all their small farmers and turn the continent into a dystopia of vast monocrop Frankplant fields tilled by robot tractors and pollinated by robot bees must be borne of some sick antipathy toward Nature.

        The methods recommended by the article are the same as those used by Gabe Brown in the restoration of the prairie land he’s responsible for in North Dakota. As for even profitability, when he was forced off the hamster wheel of bank loans to buy more fertilizer to grow crops necessary to pay the interest on the bank loans, he found he finally became profitable relying on shaping his operation to its natural setting.

        One group that really benefits from those Big Ag methods: big corporations, big banks and Big Oil. Having devastated America’s rich cropland, they’re ready to do the same for Africa.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        There are American farmers who use non-monocultures or rotating monocultures, and livestock integration, and so forth, into their operations. There are so few of them that someone with a more powerful memory than I have could name every single one of them. (Certified organic growers, of whom there are more than that, have partway approached what these few particular farmers are doing).

        If and as Africa hears about these particular few ( very few) farmers, and sees their business-viable results over time, Africa might or might not freely decide to ask them some questions about how they do what they do. I know when I was at an Acres USA conference some years ago, I saw some farmers ( a delegation?) there from Kenya.

        So eco-sustainable food costs more? Well, that’s the price of fair-wage fair-profit eco-sustainable food.
        Those who don’t want to pay that price can keep eating their petrochemical GMO sh*tfuud produkt if that is their pleasure.

        Hopefully the price of Haber-Bosch nitrogen becomes so totally out-of-sight out-of-reach to mainstream American farmers that looming bankruptcy, liquidation and despair will torture and terrorise them into looking at what people like Gabe Brown, Gary Zimmer, Mark Shepard and a few others have been doing highly profitably for years and years and years. And for those who would rather fight than switch, die than learn, let Darwin take them.

    3. SamS

      Nitrogen fertilizer is fed directly to cows. Yes, they do that. I wonder if it is a significant percentage of the total fertilizer number?

      1. converger

        How much food healthy cows eat depends on a lot of things, but 2.5% of body weight per day is a reasonable place to start. For a 1,200 pound cow, figure ~30 pounds of dry weight (water adds a lot to the total feed weight) per day. Maximum recommended doses of fossil fuel-based urea as a nitrogen supplement are about 0.05 pounds per day, roughly 0.15% of the daily dry weight total. Nitrogen content of feed-grade urea is around 45%, so maximum incremental nitrogen is ~0.07% of total feed by weight.

        It’s easy to screw up nitrogen supplements in a way that makes cows sicker, instead of healthier. Urea supplements are something that you do in the industrial meat and dairy industry. It’s unnecessary if you aren’t already stressing cows to maximize profits. There are lots of reasons why feeding cows synthetic urea is a bad idea. But even in a factory farm, it’s not a huge component of the overall feed mix.

    4. Bruce F

      I agree with the idea that its possible to grow organic row crops without synthetic N. Rick Clark is an organic farmer in Indiana doing just that on approx. 7000 acres.

      Rick hasn’t used nitrogen or any kind of fertilizer in years. He uses a legume package to fix nitrogen into the soil that helps his cash crops grow.

      Biomass is the secret to Clark Land and Cattle’s success. Their goal is to generate upwards of 10,000 lb/Acre of biomass. This biomass provides 70% of the weed suppression with the remaining 30% from the cash crop canopy.

      We’re starting to do the same on our (smaller) organic farm here in NW Wisconsin.

      It may not seem like much when put up next to Gates and his crowd but all of us do what we can.

      1. Copeland

        >I agree with the idea that its possible to grow organic row crops without synthetic N.

        Possible indeed, it used to be the only way to grow all food crops. For thousands of years, all human food was organic, and “fertilized” organically.

        Sometimes it seems like people boil “not possible to feed 8 billion” down to “not possible at all”. Two different topics.

      2. Samuel Conner

        Thanks for this!

        Clicking through, and noticing the photo of young corn coming up through a “leave in ground” mulch of standing rye stalks, I thought, “Lambert would be pleased!” Leave it in the ground!

        I wonder if there is any mileage in smaller farms that want to transition in this direction seeking “ES(G)” investment from smaller investors whose conceptual and time horizon on ROI includes positive externalities for future generations.

        (I imagine that at some point, if not already, NGOs will take this up as a fund-raising hook. Not too enthusiastic about that prospect, though maybe there are some good ones)

        1. converger

          They’re called land banks. Europe used to have a lot of them, including some of the biggest banks there today. They’re also called credit unions, and state-owned investment banks (Bank of North Dakota is the single example of this in the US). Family farm investments were the bread and butter of many local rural banks, and some of them were serious about taking the long view.

          The institutional tools have been around for a long time. We just need to repurpose them back to their original mission.

      3. Susan the other

        It is very nice to hear about these successes. When I read anything about Bill Gates’ obscene obsession with industrialized farming, medicine or anything else whatsoever I always want to vomit.

      4. drumlin woodchuckles

        Food buyer-eaters can show support for your efforts in the only way that matters, by buying your production. If it costs more, they should accept that as the price of long-term eco-survival.

    5. converger

      I completely agree with the conclusions: African over-reliance on fossil fuel-based, largely imported nitrogen, largely to support factory farming that’s growing food many people can’t afford while stripmining the soil, is a Very Bad Idea, for all kinds of reasons.

      That said, the misleading representation of the scale of incremental climate emissions is annoying. Even if we accept the worst case estimates shown here, 19 to 50 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (the apples to apples standard calculation, which explicitly includes the long term effect of high impact gases like NOx or methane) by 2050 isn’t even in the noise in a world that’s currently producing 38 billion metric tonnes of global emissions per year. We’re talking an incremental climate impact of 0.1% of current emissions per year, thirty years from now. It’s not nothing, but it’s certainly not the first thing I’d be worried about.

      If you genuinely believe that massive nitrogen imports to Africa to grow more export crops is a good idea, increasing climate emissions by one-thousandth of the current global total to feed the entire African continent (the Gates imperative) is one of the best investments we could possibly make in more carbon emissions.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Wait! . . . . If corporate plantationized land in Africa is growing crops to export out of Africa, how are those crops feeding anyone inside Africa when they have been exported out of Africa without anyone inside of Africa being able to even eat them?

        What exactly are we talking about here?

      2. CuriosityConcern

        Is that taking longetivity into account? Seems like a longetivity of 100 years could add up to something bigger than the annual numbers, but I’m spitballing…

        1. converger

          “Carbon dioxide equivalent” (CO2e) does take longevity into account. For example, a tonne of methane is equivalent to 24-80 (depending on who’s counting) tonnes of carbon dioxide.

          When people talk about things like NOx GHG emissions, they are typically using carbon dioxide equivalent numbers to make an apples to apples comparison.

          Another tell about misdirection with numbers in this piece is the assertion that “[c]umulative GHGs would be 750 Mt by 2050. That is an amount nearly equal to the annual emissions of the entire commercial aviation sector.”

          Aircraft are about 3% of current GHG emissions, so that’s about right. But 750 Mt/30 years = 25 Mt of CO2e per year, which is roughly the range we’re talking about for NOx emissions from fertilizer in Africa. Comparing cumulative and annual emissions is apples and oranges.

    6. Brick

      I think the effects of nitrogen and Farming in general play a much bigger part in global warming than anybody realises.

      Nitrogen is the worst ocean pollutant because it causes harmful algal blooms leading to ocean dead zones (hypoxia), destroying ocean ecosystems and contributes to global warming through stopping ocean absorption of CO2.

      Copper and Heavy metals typically used in farming fungicides also alter the balance between PhytoPlankton and ZooPlankton which in turn reduces the absoption of CO2 by oceans and reduces the amount of fish and seaweed which could be an alternative food source.

      The proposition for Nitrogen usage is that we can increase food productivity per land unit, yet the best way to achieve that might be more labour intensive farming and utilisation of a wider natural seed range.

      There appears to be a theme of climate change conversations missing important and business inconvinient facts. Toyota and Hyundai not exactly signing up to banning combustion engines at COP26 and continuing exploring hydrogen usage (i.e. maybe brake dust from heavier vehicles contributes to climate change and the case for one particular solution is not so clear). I also noticed amongst the clamour for certain countries to get involved with climate change little nuggets of different ideas like sponge cities in China and gardens by the bay in Singapore. Its was also no surprise that financing and increasing SDR creation and usage never really got traction (see: the golden opportunity by alok sharma of the IMF who touched on this).

      It just worries me that in our attempts to tackle the big issues of our time we end up blinkered and thinking gets captured by big business.

      (Read: The Nitrogen Problem by Richard Conniff)
      (Read: Fungicides: An Overlooked Pesticide Class by Jochen P zubrod)
      (Read: Metals Toxic Effects in Aquatic Ecosystems by By Stefania Gheorghe et al)

    7. Scylla

      I’d just like to point out that Allan Savory is from Africa. Allan is the one who Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, Russ Wilson, and many others originally got their ideas/practices from. Africa is literally the home of regenerative agriculture. I don’t think people like Gates are ever going to be very successful there (Thankfully).

    8. jo6pac

      Way back before they paved over the SF bay area framers grew fava beans. They planted them in the fall then plowed them under in the spring a natural nitrogen

    9. Linda amick

      As a long time gardener I have found the best fertilizer and weed suppression is collecting grass clippings while mowing and spreading them at a 4-6inch thick level in the entire garden area. It fertilizes plants, retains moisture and smothers weeds.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And if the lawn is mixed grass-white clover, then the lawn is bio-fixing its own nitrogen without any Haber-Bosch input.

      2. Brian westva

        I do the same thing in my yard for my raised beds. It works great. Rabbits like to nest on top of that mulch in the spring also.

        I’m glad to read several comments mentioning regenerative agriculture. A couple of great videos of Gabe Brown explaining his methods can be found here:

        A second video by Gabe brown can be found here:

        One thing that Gabe talks about is how much nitrogen is above an acre of ground. It is a tremendous amount that is freely available to farmers if they plant legume to fix nitrogen. Why in the world is bill gates promoting synthetic fertilizer?

    10. Bob

      This fertilizer issue like the cow fart issue smells like a red herring.

      Please let’s have an informed, evidence based discussion of global warming.

      Methane, fossil fueled operations, cement manufacturing, are likely much larger contributors to global warming.

      If we are to discuss global warming, can we base the discussion of the relative impacts of different sources ?

      1. Craig Fisher

        Volatilization from nitrogen fertilizers is not at all a red herring, nor are enteric methane emissions. They are substantial contributors to climate change, depending on the country you are talking about. Agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent of all emissions in Canada, and of that 10%, 41% comes from “agricultural soils” (i.e. mainly volatilization from the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers), and 41% from enteric fermentation, i.e. cow farts (link).

    11. Craig Fisher

      Yes, the Green Revolution has always been a bit of a joke, because it relies on faulty premises, namely that it’s a lack of agricultural production that leads to poor nutritional outcomes. In fact, we choose to feed a substantial amount of our crop production to animals, losing at least 80% of the calorie value in the process. If we used our land to produce crops to feed people directly, and had a system to ensure an equitable distribution, we’d be just fine. In addition, a market which encourages farmers to plant nothing but feed crops leads to very poor crop rotations. I live in Manitoba, Canada, and the rotation for some farmers here is literally just wheat -> canola -> soybean, which is insufficiently diverse to sustain soil quality and to ward off pests and diseases. Canola and soybean are also crops whose demand is driven almost entirely by the processed food and livestock feed markets.

      Part of the climate transition ought to involve drastically reducing the amount of meat we consume, and a rapid shift to agroecologically sound organic cropping practices. However, as alluded to in this article, politicians don’t want to tangle with farmers, because they show up at your legislature in their tractors, and people are sympathetic by default to farmers.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        One way to drastically reduce the amount of meat eaten would be to ban CAFO meat, or tax it out of existence. That would leave pasture-and-range meat as the only meat left, which would be a drastic reduction right there.

        Plus, pasture and range under livestock can be skycarbon-draining, as Gabe Brown, Alan Savory and others have demonstrated. Whereas corn and soybeans ( even for tofu with soy sauce) under tractors are skycarbon-flooding.

        1. Craig Fisher

          Unfortunately, the possibilities of “regenerative grazing” have been oversold. I say this as somebody who used to run a regenerative-model farm (with chickens, not beef) – I’ve had to confront the facts on this issue. I have Gabe Brown’s books – in fact, his farm is not that far from mine. Alan Savory, a white supremacist with an utterly unscientific method of production, can go hang, however.

          We simply can not sustain Western-style meat-heavy diets, no matter the method of production. Shifting to all grass-finished beef doesn’t change that, and in fact makes things worse. To cite one study: a shift from grain-finished cattle to exclusively grassfed in the US would require increasing the cattle herd by 30%, an amount which the current supply of pastureland can not support. In addition, enteric methane emissions from cattle, which are 20x – 28x more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, are a significant contributor to climate change, and despite the protests to the contrary from cattle ranchers, even mob-grazed pasture soils simply do not absorb anywhere close to the CO2 equivalent in methane produced by the cattle. That huge increase in the number of cattle will do a significant amount of damage. There are also many other negative effects associated with even regenerative systems, such as biodiversity loss. A recent study from the University of Alberta demonstrates that even regenerative systems have a negative effect on biodiversity.

          Then there is the fact that meat simply isn’t very good for you in large quantities. But that’s a whole other discussion.

          A planet with 9 billion people simply can’t afford intensive animal agriculture. Yes, you can have a few beef on a few acres, or some chickens in your backyard, or you can hunt in rewilded areas. If our policies are created in accord with the science, in the future, you will not be able to graze 120 head of cattle on 300 acres, though, like a farm I used to work on did.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            Banning CAFO meat and limiting meat to pasture-range meat strictly would in itself force the diet from meat-heavy to meat-light.

            I have seen no evidence that chickens have the same effect on land under chickens that ruminants have on land under ruminants. Can you offer links to articles describing how the two are similar or the same so that we can realize that we can extrapolate from “land under chickens” to “land under cattle”?

            I bet that study of how shifting from CAFO beef to grass fed beef assumes producing the same amount of beef and so would require 30% more pastureland. But forbidding the turning of new wildlands into pastureland would prevent that from happening and would force the adjustment of accepting 30% less beef instead. And that is the type of adjustment I had in mind. A change from CAFO to pasture range cattle involving zero increase in number of cattle and accepting the attendant decrease in amount of meat.

            Has anyone studied methane emission from cattle on pasture and range compared to carbon uptake and bio-sequestration by the pasture-and-range land under those cattle? If someone has real figures to present, then we may make a real comparison. We may also note that methane from cattle into the air oxidises into carbon dioxide in the air. If we reduced all the non-cattle methane emissions down to zero , would the natural carbon-dioxide uptake-sequestration systems still be not enough to match it? If not, then we will also have to ban rice-growing throughout Asia, because it also emits methane.

            How does grass-and-range meat compare with CAFO meat in “good-for-you-ness”? Is grassfed shinola meat really the same as petrochemical GMO shitmeat?

            If no unfarmed land is turned into pasture, then no biodiversity on currently unfarmed land is lost. If the only land that is turned into pasture is the land currently used to grow petrochemical GMO shit corn and shit soy for CAFO shitmeat, that will not lower biodiversity on THAT land. It will only RAISE the biodiversity on THAT land. But that concept only works if we forbid the conversion of biodiverse wild land into pasture or range. Which gets back to my assumption of far less meat overall.

            “A planet with 9 billion people simply can’t afford intensive animal agriculture. ” Obviously.
            Which is why I suggested banning CAFO meat production completely and turning all the currently CAFO-supplying land into pasture and range for EXtensive cattle raising which is the opposite of INtensive cattle raising. Which means much less meat overall.

            As to Alan Savory’s method, I would like to see figures on whether it works or not . . . does it lead to multi-species plant recovery on damaged land which is then Savory’d? If it does, then his having been a white supremacist is irelevant to the issue and is only being raised as a clever diversion, which however was not quite clever enough to work. If his approach is unscientific, what in particular is unscientific about it? Have his claims for it been falsified or debunked?

    12. Alena Shahadat

      I know a small scale farmer here in Switzerland who was implementing the “industrial” method, milk cows separate and calves separate, milking cows and feeding calves industrial stuf. Then the milk prices started going down he realized the absurdity and let the cows with their calves, He said it is much less work, much cheaper to raise for meat, cows are happier and the meat better. He sells all the meat before the young are grown up.

      Also I remember reading about african soils that they are very fragile, so couple of years of intensive indelicate crops growing turns them into desert.

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