Beware the Prophets of Doom – Organic Food, Fertilisers and Fossil Fuels  

kitchen garden organic

“As oil and gas prices rise so does the price of artificial chemical fertilisers – the lynch-pin of industrial agriculture’s claims to be ‘efficient’. In the UK, the price of nitrogen fertiliser has doubled over the past year to around £330 per tonne. With oil currently at over $130 a barrel and with OPEC warning it could reach $200 by the end of the year, it has been suggested that fertilisers could hit GBP 500 a tonne. At these prices, the claimed efficiency of fossil-fuel and fertiliser dependent industrial farming begins to collapse.”

The above extract is from a 2008 Soil Association press release.

In July 2022, the price of oil is just over $100 per barrel and fertilisers are well more than double the 2008 price. In fact, the price of fertilisers has doubled since 2021.

Much has been written in recent months about supply chain crises stemming from the conflict in Ukraine and the effects on gas and oil. Perhaps up to two thirds of the global population are reliant on nitrogen-based synthetic fertilisers for much of their food. As a result, alarm bells have been ringing over fertiliser and food shortages, which will hit the world’s poorest the worst.

With fears of rising prices for natural gas – essential for producing nitrogen fertiliser – we are seeing the vulnerability of a fossil-fuel dependent food system. Nitrogen fertilisers are made from ammonia produced by the Haber-Bosch process, an energy-intensive approach. Natural gas usually supplies the hydrogen. The nitrogen is derived from the air. This ammonia is used for all nitrogen fertilisers, including anhydrous ammonium nitrate and urea.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in the period 1961-2014, global nitrogenous fertiliser consumption went from a little more than 10 million tonnes to around 105 million tonnes. This has helped feed and maintain a rapidly growing global population.

But this has come at a high cost in terms of mineral-depleted and microbiological-degraded soils, polluted waterways, unstable nitrogen in soils which release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and a food system extremely vulnerable to oil and gas price rise volatility due to war, commodity speculation or some other catastrophe.

The situation in Ukraine and the West’s sanctions on Russia aside, the current crisis might not be solely due to the economics of supply and demand. The recent article by Antonia Juhasz ‘Why are gas prices so high?’ reports that current prices are not reflective of supply chain problems. In effect, energy traders are stoking rising prices and volatility when it comes to the price of oil, natural gas and other vital fossil-fuel commodities.

Given the environmental impacts and the vulnerability to price shocks and largely unregulated speculation, it is increasingly clear that the world must move away from its reliance on fossil-fuel agriculture. This also involves delinking from a globalised food system based on long-line supply chains.

For instance, Russia and Ukraine produce more than half of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and 30% of the world’s wheat. Some 45 African and least-developed countries import at least a third of their wheat from Ukraine or Russia with 18 of them importing at 50% or more.

Regional and local community-owned food systems based on food sovereignty and short(er) food supply chains that can cope with future shocks are required.

How we cultivate food also needs to change.

The EU’s ‘farm to fork’ strategy advocates for at least a 20% reduction in synthetic fertiliser use by 2030 and at least a 50% reduction in pesticides. This has come under fire from the US government and its cronies in the agrochemical sector who forward tired and discredited arguments that this will fuel hunger and starvation and lead to increased land use.

The industry is determined to undermine the EU’s strategy, which also aims by 2030 to more than triple the percentage of EU farmland under organic management (from 8.1% to 25%).

A loud lobby for a silent spring’ is a 2022 report by the Brussels-based lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, which details the carefully orchestrated attack on this EU strategy by the industry. Its business model depends on trapping farmers on chemical treadmills.

Rather than rehash the arguments here, readers may turn to author and impact investor Brian Halweil who presented a detailed, research-based takedown of the anti-organic arguments of the pesticide lobby some years back. His piece originally appeared in World Watch Volume 19, Number 3. It can be accessed on the Organic Consumers Association website – ‘Can Organic Food Feed the World?

Halveil also rebuts the claim that organic fertilisers are insufficient in quantity and effect for maintaining necessary levels of productivity. The arguments for organic methods and agroecological approaches and evidence of their success and scaling up have been well documented (see the 2022 article ‘Living in Epoch-Defining Times: Food, Agriculture and the New World Order’ for a brief overview).

Readers are also urged to access the short but excellent backgrounder on YouTube Understanding Our Soil: The Nitrogen Cycle, Fixers and Fertilizer (2021), which describes the deleterious impact of modern synthetic fertilisers on soil, water and the atmosphere and how organic nitrogen-fixing methods can address these problems, not least by restoring and boosting soil fertility.

Of course, no one is advocating an immediate shift to organic cultivation methods. There has to be a gradual and careful phase out and phase in which would take place over a period of many years.

In this respect, Vandana Shiva says in a recent article that it is time governments made the fertiliser industry pay for nitrogen pollution and redirect subsidies from industrial agriculture to ecological farming. Rather than attacking farmers (as is currently happening in the Netherlands), she says new agroecology schools need to be open for farmers to make a transition to ecological agriculture over a three- to five-year period.

At the same time, we must not be hoodwinked by the relentless fear-mongering (concerning organics) of the agritech-agribusiness lobby, which requires farmers to continue to purchase its proprietary inputs, including synthetic fertilisers, while continuing to rollout and impose its high-input, high-energy, health-damaging model of industrial agriculture across the world.

Colin Todhunter is an independent writer with an interest in food, agriculture and development.


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