The unfolding climate catastrophe is front and center at the U.N. climate talks, where governments will make promises to reduce emissions, some sooner than others, with some of those promises more convincing than others. The best of those promises and plans start from solid, up to the minute data about the real causes of emissions and are grounded in solutions that work for all affected people and environments.
This week, IATP, GRAIN and Greenpeace released a summary of new research on emissions from fertilizers. The research, led by three scientists, provides the first real estimates of those emissions that track the whole value chain, from production, through transport and field application. The scientists found that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers make up 2.4% of global emissions, and more than 20% of direct emissions from agriculture.
Synthetic fertilizer use has increased dramatically in recent decades, driven by donor policies and corporations intent on spreading Green Revolution practices to developing countries, encouraging dependency on imported inputs whose price is locked into the price of fossil fuels. In the U.S., the overuse of chemical inputs is tied into the economics that have driven farmers to “get big or get out,” no matter the consequences for the environment. Now that prices have skyrocketed due to rising energy costs (natural gas is a key component of nitrogen fertilizer), farmers who depend on those inputs are watching their production costs soar as well.
Alternatives to synthetic fertilizers are both available and necessary. The authors point to the evidence for a transition to a diversity of crops that can thrive without synthetic fertilizers. This diversity relies instead on farmers and scientists’ knowledge of organic fertilizers, as well as production methods that strengthen soil fertility and ensure irrigation without wasting freshwater. International markets are flooded with cereal crops grown with synthetic fertilizer; any transition will need to be thought through and would have to overcome considerable opposition from businesses invested in mass production of low-cost commodities, as well as the simple inertia of business as usual.
But we have clear starting points: Agriculture is a significant source of some of the most polluting greenhouse gases. Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most potent of these pollutants. Agriculture in many developed and developing countries wastes fertilizer, and the resulting runoff poisons waterways and reduces biological diversity. We have many crops and agricultural practices, such as agroecology, that take a more holistic approach to food production and do not incur these costs. A more complete view of the climate costs of fertilizer use, as well as an appreciation for the broader ecosystem benefits of the alternatives, is a great entry point for the transition ahead.