IIt usually happens without notice or comment, but three of the planet’s key elements – carbon, nitrogen and oxygen – sit like ducks in the row as elements six, seven and eight, respectively. on the periodic table.
None is more important than the others, but if there is a first among equals, it would be nitrogen, as a prescient report by the National Farmers Union of Canada (NFU-C) pointed out. in August.
The reason for the importance of nitrogen is elegantly simple: it is an “essential part of DNA, RNA and all amino acids” which are “key elements in the metabolism of humans, other animals, plants and all life.
Equally important, the 76-page report points out that “nitrogen…(is the) key to photosynthesis, the foundation of virtually all of Earth’s food chains, natural and agricultural.”
This emphasis cannot be overstated, notes Darrin Qualman, the report’s author, because “human population, and therefore the size and pace of our global economy, is a function of nitrogen flows.”
Today, however, there is barely enough natural nitrogen in our biosphere to feed half of the Earth’s approximately eight billion people. But humanity survives, even thrives, thanks to our intelligence: we have discovered how to make “synthetic nitrogen” and it has changed the game of life.
It is also a climate change because “nitrous oxide, N2O, the main GHG [or greenhouse gas] resulting from the use of nitrogen fertilizers, is one of the three main drivers of global warming, behind carbon dioxide and methane.
Pound for pound, however, “N2O has about 300 times the warming effect of CO2.” Worse, “with an atmospheric residence period of more than 100 years, the N2O emitted today will… disrupt the climate well into the 22nd century.”
These two facts – that we use more nitrogen than our biosphere can handle and that this extra nitrogen is a key driver of GHG put nitrogen – and in turn, one of its biggest users, l farming – directly in the crosshairs of climate change advocates.
And not only farmers for whom synthetic fertilizers are essential inputs for cereal production, but also livestock farmers like those in the Netherlands whose 1.6 million dairy cows contribute significantly to nitrogen emissions in Europe.
Indeed, the Netherlands recently adopted the 50% reduction in N2O emissions recommended by the European Union as the main method to combat climate change. The move understandably angered farmers who, according to the August 20 New York Times, have “burned hay and manure along highways, dumped trash on roads…and blocked food distribution centers with tractors” to record their fury.
The NFU-C report anticipates this well-founded anger and responds directly to it. “The (F)armers do nothing wrong” by using fertilizers, he stresses. “Our levels of nitrogen use are functions…of major 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 drives yields, production, exports, [and] profits of agribusiness” in a “relentless push towards endless growth”.
Acknowledging this fact won’t make it easier or less “risky” for farmers to “give up fertilizer and get out [this] economic logic… Instead, the rules of the game must be changed,” writes Qualman. “Incentives need to be changed. Market power needs to be rebalanced… We need to get less of what we need from industry and more from biology.
If, for example, he suggests, Canada has “reduced” its use of nitrogen fertilizers from “perhaps a third” to “the amount [used] in the period 2008-2010”, there would be “significant net benefits” for farmers and the environment.
But farmers can’t foot the full bill for needed changes in fertilizer use that would be good for both farms and the environment, Qualman said in a phone interview. “These significant costs would be shared by the government” because the main benefit, “a better environment”, would benefit everyone.
And it’s not a ‘for or against’ fight because ‘it’s likely that most farmers, other citizens and policy makers will be against continuing [nitrogen’s] massive overuse.
If, of course, we don’t want to cook our own goose, uh, duck, first.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in the United States and Canada. Past chronicles, events and contact details are posted on www.farmandfoodfile.coMr.