Peak Fertilizer

From : Andrew Leonard "How the World Works"

The upside to peak fertilizer

Synthetic fertilizer prices are spiking upwards all over the world,
inflicting economic pain on farmers everywhere. Another sign of the
peak oil apocalypse? The industrial production of nitrogen -- a key
synthetic fertilizer ingredient -- is extraordinarily energy
intensive. So when energy prices rise, so do fertilizer prices. And
if you buy the thesis that without manmade fertilizer the world will
be physically incapable of supporting a population of nine billion,
then you start to get very nervous.

Opponents of biofuels have been quick to point the finger at the
stampede to divert farming land to energy crops as another reason
explaining the fertilizer market's failure to keep up with global
demand. But that's only one factor. Population growth and the
explosion of meat and dairy consumption in the rising middle classes
of the developing world are also contributing to the worldwide
agricultural boom. Even without rising energy prices, the surging
demand for fertilizer would be overwhelming suppliers.

When demand rises, supply follows -- and sure enough, investment in
synthetic fertilizer production is booming. Intriguingly, the global
center for synthetic fertilizer production appears to be the oil
states of the Mideast. A new study by the Doha-based Gulf
Organization for Industrial Consulting reports that UAE, Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman are expected to invest
billions of dollars in the next few years ramping up ammonia and urea
production. (Thanks to Energy Bulletin for the link.)

Which drops a big fat dollop of synthetic fertilizer irony in our
laps. The growth of energy crops is in part directly attributable to
rising energy prices. But the demand for synthetic fertilizer to
nurture those energy crops requires the consumption of even more
fossil fuel, thus likely pushing energy prices further, and creating
even more demand for energy crops. On second thought, that's not
ironic. That's tragic.

The price-mechanism doesn't only work in the direction of encouraging
more synthetic fertilizer. One news report, while predicting that the
current imbalance between supply and demand could last as long as two
years before new supply came on line, observed that in the meantime
farmers might be forced to "consider converting to organic production."

So you can forget about the endless argument over whether organic
food is healthier for human consumption than the product of the
industrial agricultural system. If synthetic fertilizer prices
continue to rise, organic food may end up cheaper than the alternative.

davelambert's picture

Before the invention of plastics and nuclear bombs, the primary use of nitrogen was in the manufacture of explosives. When wars die down, munitions industries go fallow, and stockpiles of materiel must be diverted to other uses. Corporate types are clever in this regard. After WWII, much of this production was diverted to synthetic fertilizers which led to the so-called green revolution. Fertilizers are made from pretty much the same stuff as conventional explosives, which is why you can supposedly make a bomb out of the stuff if you know how. This article on Peak Fertilizer highlights a perfect example of how we continually create solutions that generate more problems.

Incidentally, the period following the Civil War was marked by a similar dilemma in munitions-related industries. In that case, the main offshoot was the introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer, which is probably the best material for finishing furniture ever invented. It is easy to work with, dries quickly, is forgiving of mistakes, is hard and durable and easy to repair or restore, and looks fabulous. It's nasty when it burns, but as far as I know you can't back-engineer lacquer to make explosives. Unfortunately it is also rich in volatile organic compounds or VOCs which you notice as nasty fumes. This has led to its restriction in many areas (you can't buy more than 5 gallons at a time in CA), as well as the introduction of a generation of plastic-based finishes that are inferior in every way, and ultimately far more damaging to the environment. As I have said many times, there will be no antiques from our era.

Back to the article - I firmly believe that with wise stewardship our Earth is capable of supporting everyone. Composting, natural growing, husbandry and fresh raw eating are what our connection with Earth demands of us - a minimum of flesh and a great deal of vegetable food and good, healthy exercise in the sun and open air, not the gym. This, of course, we don't do. And at some point we have to stop reproducing so rapidly - the real issue is Peak People. In every case where overpopulation of a species becomes a problem, Nature makes an adjustment. I happen to believe that most of us will witness such a process or event, and I'm not sure whether to be horrified or not. Again making connections, it invites comparison with the so-called Christian dogma of the rapture, does it not?

Thank you for posting this. Very provocative.


lightwins's picture

Thanks for your post; it helps contextualize the article. What does 8-D mean to you?

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