The ceaseless drive to endless increase

Alan Guebert

It usually goes without notice or comment, but three of the planet’s key elements carbon, nitrogen and oxygen sit like ducks in row as element six, seven and eight, respectively, on the periodic table.

None is more important than the others but if there’s a first among equals it would be nitrogen, as a prescient report from Canada’s National Farmers Union pointed out in August.

The reason for nitrogen’s importance is elegantly simple, it is an “essential part of DNA, RNA and all amino acids” which are the “key building blocks to the metabolisms of humans, other animals, plants and all life.”

Equally important, the 76-page report emphasizes, “Nitrogen… (is the) key to photosynthesis, the foundation of virtually all Earth’s food chains, natural and agricultural.”

That emphasis cannot be overstated, notes Darrin Qualman, the report’s author, because “Human population and thus the size and pace of our global economy are functions of nitrogen flows.”

Today, however, there’s barely enough natural nitrogen in our biosphere to sustain half of the Earth’s nearly eight billion people but humanity survives, even thrives, because of our cleverness. We discovered how to make “synthetic nitrogen” and that became life’s massive game changer.

It’s also a climate changer because “Nitrous oxide, N2O, the main GHG (greenhouse gas) resulting from the use of nitrogen fertilizer is one of the three main drivers of planetary warming,” right behind carbon dioxide and methane.

Pound for pound, however, “N2O has a warming effect approximately 300 times that of CO2.” Worse, “with an atmospheric residence period of more than 100 years, N2O emitted today will… disrupt the climate well into the 22nd century.”

Those two facts, that we are using more nitrogen than our biosphere can handle and that this extra N is a key greenhouse gas driver has put nitrogen and in turn one of its biggest users agriculture squarely in the gunsights of climate change advocates.

Also, not just crop farmers where synthetic fertilizers are critical inputs in grain production but also livestock farmers like those in the Netherlands whose 1.6 million dairy cows are sizable contributors to Europe’s nitrogen emissions.

Indeed, the Netherlands recently adopted the European Union’s recommended 50 percent cut in N2O emissions as a principle method to address climate change. That move, understandably angered farmers who, reported the New York Times on August 20, have “set fire to hay and manure along highways, dumped trash on roads… and blockaded food distribution centers with tractors” to register their fury.

The Canada’s National Farmers Union report anticipates this well-founded anger and addresses it straight on. “(F)armers are not doing anything wrong” by using fertilizer, it stresses. “Our levels of nitrogen use are functions… of the core economic, material and food flows, and patterns… driven by concerted corporate and government policies at the highest levels.”

In short, our personal, national and international fear of hunger dictates a food system where “farmers are embedded in a multi trillion-dollar system that pushes for ever higher yields, production, exports [and] agribusiness profits” in a “ceaseless drive to endless increase.”

Acknowledging that fact won’t make it easier or less “risky” for farmers to “renounce fertilizers and step outside [this] economic logic… Instead, the rules of the game must be changed,” writes Qualman. “Incentives need to be altered. Market power must be rebalanced… We must get less of what we need from industry and more from biology.”

If, for example he suggests, Canada “rolled back” its nitrogen fertilizer use “by perhaps one third” to “the tonnage [used] in the period 2008 through 2010” there would be “significant net benefits” for farmers and the environment.

However, farmers can’t foot the entire bill for needed changes in fertilizer use that would be wise for both farms and the environment, says Qualman in a telephone interview. “These significant costs would be shared by the government” because the key benefit, “a better environment,” would benefit all.

Also, this isn’t a “for or against” fight because “it is likely that most farmers, other citizens and policymakers will be against continuing [nitrogen’s] massive overuse.”

If, of course, we don’t want to cook our own goose, er, duck first.

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