Thursday, June 27, 2019

Beware of the N-bomb

There are good, and frightening, reasons to closely follow the changes in the nitrogen cycle. We should not be surprised if the effects and costs of disturbing it turn out to be as dramatic as those for the carbon cycle. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizers are around 3% of global emissions, but they are not visible in greenhouse gas inventories. The abolition or drastic reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers is a pre-condition for a sustainable food system.

In farming, the availability of nutrients, particularly of nitrogen, potash and phos­phorus – mostly referred to by their chemical symbols N, P and K – is a major limiting factor. All traditional farming systems have had some strategy for replacing nutrients in the soil. One is to rest the soil and allow a natural re-charge and release of nutrients from the soil and through atmospheric decomposition. Crop rotations with leguminous crops can fix nitrogen from the air and the nutritional demands of the various crops can complement each other. Phosphorous, from deeper layers or bound in the soil, can be ‘mined’ by some crops making it available to others. Nutrients can also come from irrigation water (especially sediments in flood waters), animal manure, human waste, plants, grass and other residues, a plethora of natural organic fertil­izers. Farmers have used oil-cakes, feathers, leathers, bone, sea weed and fish as fertilizers. There are even reports that human remains from battlefields and ossuaries have been used as fertilizers. Yet all these methods have some limitations, and in most cases they require a lot of work or other efforts.
A farming system dependent on and caused by synthetic fertilizers, Mato Grosso, Brazil Photo: Gunnar Rundgren

It is therefore no wonder that the farmers of the world took to artifi­cial fertilizers with enthusiasm. They are easier to transport than bulky organic materials such as manure, easier to apply and give somewhat predictable results. Global annual use of nitrogen fertilizers increased from 11 million tons in 1960 to 115 million tons in 2017. Contrary to common belief most of the fertilizers are not used to replace what is removed by the crop from the field. The quantities applied mostly surpass this many times. Most nitrogen is simply wasted through denitrification, leaking, erosion and volatilization of ammonia.[i] According to David Montgomery, an American soil scientist, half of the fertilizer used in the United States is used to compensate the nutrient losses caused by erosion. Globally, the nitrogen efficiency in grain production has deteriorated drastically and rapidly (probably mostly a result of decreasing marginal return). Around 1960, each ton of chemical fertilizer resulted in an increase in grain yield of 75 tons, whereas at the end of 1990 this resulted in just 25 tons.[ii]

The greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made

Reflecting on his promotion of chemical fertilizers von Liebig ex­claimed: “I have sinned against the wisdom of the Creator and, justly, I have been punished. I wanted to improve his work because, in my blindness, I believed that a link in the astonishing chain of laws that govern and constantly renew life on the surface of the Earth had been forgotten. It seemed to me that weak and insignificant man had to redress this oversight.”[iii] Had von Liebig lived now, he would be even more worried and remorseful.

The quantity of biologically active nitrogen released annually into the biosphere has increased nine-fold in 100 years and nitrogenous fertilizers are the main source of this. In one of the most influential scientific articles of last decade, Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity, professor Johan Rockström and colleagues identify the nitrogen cycle as one of three areas – together with climate regulation and biological diversity – where modern civilization has surpassed a threshold for stable development.

Without knowing it, the average European bears costs of over €500 per year for farmers’ use of Nitrogen fertilizers. The European Nitrogen Assessment[iv] recognizes that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have huge advantages but also notes that their use comes with a huge price tag. The report states that the increased level of biologically active nitrogen in the biosphere might represent “the greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made”. For a farmer it is profitable to use nitrogen fertilizer; the return of one Euro invested in nitrogen fertil­izer is estimated at between two and five Euros. But someone else pays a bigger bill. “Environmental damage related to nitrogen effects from agriculture in the EU-27 was estimated at €20-€150 billion per year. This can be compared with a benefit of N-fertilizer for farmers of €10-€100 billion per year, with considerable uncertainty about long-term N-benefits for crop yield”.[v]

The damage caused by fertilizers includes a wide range of direct and indirect effects. Increased concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the biosphere are two of the most impor­tant drivers of changes in ecosystems. Nitrogen plays a role in the formation of tropospheric ozone, which damages crops and plants.[vi] Chemical fertilizers have enabled farmers to skip sound crop rotations and to monocrop, which leads to a reduction of carbon content in soils. Globally, the discharge of nitrogen to the sea increased by 80% between 1860 and 1990. This run-off changes species composition and stimulates algal blooms and the associated dead zones.[vii] In the United States, the Mississippi, the Columbia, and the Susquehanna rivers together discharge approxi­mately 1 million tons of nitrogen (in the form of nitrates) per year to coastal waters – about 10% of all nitrogen applied in the country.[viii] Globally, about four hundred coastal areas are now periodically or constantly oxygen-depleted as a result of fertilizer run-off, sewage discharge and the combustion of fossil fuels.[ix] The use of chemical fertilizers has also led to harmful levels of nitrates in some drinking water.[x]

Huge greenhouse gas emissions

Counting the emissions in the whole lifecycle, nitrogen fertilizers is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Emissions are caused by the use of fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, in the production of the fertilizers. There are emissions of carbon dioxide, laughing gas (nitrous oxide) and methane emitted in the production of fertilizers. Recent research in the US[xi] shows that methane leaks from fertilizer factories to a much larger extent than earlier estimated. There are emissions from the transportation and application of fertilizers and there are huge emissions of laughing gas from fields where artificial fertilizers are used; through denitrification, much nitrogen is lost as nitro­gen gas which in essence is harmless, but some is emitted as laughing gas, a potent greenhouse gas.[xii]

Despite this, there are no figure of the emissions from nitrogen fertilizers in the IPCC reports or national greenhouse gas inventories. The emissions are allocated to other categories and therefore they are invisible.  The emissions from the production is allocated to industrial processes, the emissions from transports to transport, the emissions from application is under agriculture and the huge emissions of laughing gas from agriculture land caused by chemical fertilizers are booked under emissions from agricultural soils. But the total emissions of global use of nitrogen fertilizers corresponds to 3% of all emissions, roughly equal to global aviation emissions.

Global emissions from nitrogen fertilizers
Global consumption of N in fertilizers according to FAO: 115 million ton.
For the production we can use 6 kg CO2e per kg of N, which was the European average ten years ago, most likely a bit lower than the current global average: 115*6 = 690 million ton. Note that these figures don’t include methane emissions, which according to the new US research might be substantial.
For the use phase: 115 million ton N * 1 % IPCC:s emission factor * 44/28 (this converts N to laughing gas) * 298 (IPCC factor for conversion of laughing gas to carbon dioxide equivalents): 115*1%*44/28*298 = 538 million ton for the emissions from agriculture soils caused by N-fertilizers.
Adding rough estimates for transportation and application we reach somewhere above 1,400 million tons in total.
Source: own calculations

Can we do without them?

It is often claimed that nitrogen fertilizers feed half of the world’s population. There should be no doubt about the importance of chemical fertilizers, but this figure is based on erroneous assumptions. If you just cut away fertilizers from the existing systems yields would certainly plummet, perhaps even by half, but such a scenario is not realistic. In the same way as farmers have adjusted their production to the availability of cheap fertilizers, they would make adjustments to deal with a situation without (or with less) nitrogen fertilizers. That is exactly what organic farmers do and their yields are rarely that low. 

Chemical fertilizers are not (yet) essential for feeding the world or for human survival, but they are essential for the global model of commercial agricultural production. They allow farmers – even whole regions or countries – to specialize in certain crops. They also allow farmers to skip crop rotations and focus on the commercially most interesting crops. Other areas develop industrial livestock operations, based on feed bought in from the specialized crop farm areas. Chemical fertilizers also enable cities to grow without giving any thought to recycling their waste. Buying fertilizers is also consistent with the ever increasing commerciali­zation of farming. Because of the changes in production, monocropping and linear flows, pests and weeds become more prevalent, which makes farmers dependent on herbicides and biocides. In this way chemical fertilizers are one of the major building blocks of the modern food system. And the abolition or drastic reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers is a pre-condition for a sustainable food system.

It is doable on the farm lever as demonstrated by millions of farmers in all agro-ecological zones of the world. In all likelihood it is also doable in the global level. In the report, The future of food and agriculture – Alternative pathways to 2050, FAO outlines a scenario they call “towards sustainability” in which chemical fertilizers are no longer used while global food production is sufficient.

[i]            Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[ii]           IAASTD 2009 Agriculture at a Crossroads: Global Report International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

[iii]           Liebieg, J. von. 1865 Agrikulturchemie.

[iv]           European Science Foundation 2013 ‘Nitrogen in Europe, Current problems and future solutions’ part of The European Nitrogen Assessment

[v]           Ibid.

[vi]           Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[vii]          Ibid.

[viii]         USDA 2013 Fertilizer Use and Price

[ix]           UNEP 2010 UNEP Year Book 2010: New science and developments in our changing environments United Nations Environment Programme.

[x]           Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and human well-being–synthesis World Resource Institute.

[xi]           Zhou, X., Passow, F.H., Rudek, J., von Fisher, J.C., Hamburg, S.P. and Albertson, J.D., 2019. Estimation of methane emissions from the U.S. ammonia fertilizer industry using a mobile sensing approach. Elem Sci Anth, 7(1), p.19. DOI:

[xii]          Ayres, R. U. (editor) 1998 Eco-Restucturing: Implications for sustainable development United Nations University Press.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Five dollars a day is not enough for five a day

In discussions about food, environment and health, a resource perspective is often lacking. For more than half of the global population what ends up on their plate is mostly a function of their economic and energetic circumstances. If one want to change what people eat it is necessary to understand the realities of the global food system. Without that, all well-intended advice for a diet better for health or for the environment are falling on barren rock instead of in fertile ground.

The WHO says that 3.9 million deaths could be avoided if people ate more fruit and vegetables. The recent report of the EAT Lancet Commission recommends that people should eat at least 500 gram fruit and vegetables per day. Many countries have similar recommendations of a certain quantity in weight or in number of servings or portions. But in almost no country are people doing what they are told.  In Sweden only 1 percent of the men in rural Arjeplog eat their half a kilo per day while 19 percent of the women in wealthy, urban Täby does it.  Are people stupid or what?

In order to understand fruit and vegetables consumption it is essential to realize some pertinent facts. Fruits and vegetables are mostly luxury plants in comparison with grains, pulses, root crops. Very few traditional farming systems have had a high share of fruits and vegetables unless you include starchy crops like plantains, potatoes, cassava or yams in your definition. The reason for it is that they are fairly demanding to grow and their content of the most essential food components, energy and protein, is low. Even today, fruits and vegetables are expensive to buy.

Almost half of the world’s population live on less than $5.50 per day. Five dollars give you more in a poor country than in a rich one, but when it comes to vegetables is my experience that they are not particularly cheap in poor countries. On the contrary, I am normally envious of the prices local farmers get for their vegetables compared to what I get in Sweden. There are certainly some exceptions of coarse local vegetables such as leaves of cassava or sweet potatoes, they also happen to be by-products of the cultivation of a starchy staple foods. In some places mangoes or bananas can be very cheap.

Also in the rich countries there is a direct relation between income and consumption of vegetables. During the economic recession following the financial crisis 2008/2009 vegetable consumption shrank with one third among the poorest tenth of the British population. And in the USA, there is direct relation between low consumption of vegetables and incomes up to four times above the poverty line. In a comparison of a healthy and an unhealthy food basket in the UK, the healthy food was around 30% more expensive. In addition, the cost was much higher and the availability of fruit and vegs much lower in rural areas than in cities.

In the dominating, mostly simplistic, food, health and environment narrative we are told that people should eat less meat and more vegetables. But such calls miss that the consumption of meat and vegetables are not opposites but complementary. Normally, meat consumption and vegetable consumption increases parallel to wealth. Prajal Pradhan, Dominik E. Reusser och Juergen P. Kroppi  classifies food consumption patterns in the article Embodied Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Diets in PLOS. They show, convincingly, that most people in poor countries eat little fruit and vegetables as well as little meat (there are some exception, such as pastoralist). The food of poor people is dominated by a few starchy staple crops because they do give most value for money or most food per hour worked if you grow your own food.

When incomes increase there is a shift away from those staple crops towards more protein rich products, such as egg, milk, simple meat products (offal, sausages etc.). Often consumption of rough vegetables such as root crops, cabbage and onions increase in parallel. With further increase in income people tend to eat more whole meats and more luxurious vegetables, such as lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

This last stage also mostly coincides with that people do much less hard physical work and thus need less energy. As much as the economic perspective is missing from the food narrative, the energy perspective is also missing. There is a very strong correlation between the amount of (fossil) energy invested in food production and income. Fueling the diets of the wealthy uses up to forty times as much fossil fuels as producing the diets of the poor according to the research by Pradan and colleagues.  Clearly, it is only the wealthy that can afford to have a diet based on consumption of meat produced largely by cultivated feeds and energy poor vegetables.

In former times, it was unusual that poor people were obese for energetic reasons. Traditional staple foods are rather voluminous. You need to eat 3 kg of potatoes to get 2500 kcal, which is not even enough for somebody doing physical work. The taste and digestibility of most staples also didn’t stimulate overconsumption even if you would have afforded it. This is why pulses have not been as popular among the poor as one might believe. When income increases, for many of those that have been on a traditional staple food diet, it is an easy step to buy energy and protein dense foods such as meats and fats, rather than vegetables. Vegetables give little energy for a given volume, which is why they are popular among those trying to control weight. But they also give little energy per krona, pound, euro or dollar.

Lately things have changed. Now the industrial food system all the way from farm to table with massive energy use can provide people with very energy dense foods for a the same cost as, or even cheaper than, traditional staple crops. I think about sugar, palm oil and other mass produced vegetable oils, industrial foods made of wheat, soy and corn. This has led to increasing obesity among poor. As these foods also crowds out more nutrient dense foods we face the fact that people can be obese and still suffer from malnutrition.

Poor people don’t only have little money, they also little time as it takes a lot of time to deal with all the issues caused by poverty.  A team of Harvard economists came to the conclusion that the decreased time people spend on cooking is a major cause for obesity. Or in other words: the time cost for being sated has shrunk. The same energy dense industrial food comes in very handy, it is both rather cheap and quick to prepare. All this is reinforced by an agricultural system of constant overproduction and a food system with strong incentives to make people buy more than they need.

It seems to me that the very strong lobby for people eating more vegetables would benefit from some analysis and understanding of the actual situation of many poor people and the actual drivers in the food system, instead of believing that information or propaganda will change the situation.

How good are they – really?

I have grown vegetables professionally or semi-professionally for forty years, I was a founder of a vegetable marketing cooperative 1983 and I assisted in publishing a vegetable cookbook some thirty years ago. So clearly I am a fan of vegetables.

The article above is written without questioning the health benefits of vegetables. I don’t doubt that fruits and vegetables are healthy to eat. I am much less convinced that there is sufficient evidence that consuming fruit and vegetables is the only way to reach certain health outcome. For example, two of the most featured nutritional benefits of fruit and vegetables are that they have much fiber and that they have low energy content. But there are other foods that contain a lot of fiber. If you eat whole grains and oats you will get a lot of fiber. And the argument that there is little energy in vegetables is not a very relevant argument as long as you don’t have some particular eating disorder. Ironically, it is exactly because vegetables have little energy that they have not been prominent many diets.

It is also a bit strange that there is no agreement on what constitutes a vegetable or a fruit in the various dietary guidelines. In some countries potatoes count as vegetables, in others not. Fruit juice can count as fruit here and there, beans in some cases. A plantain (a cooking banana) can be called a fruit but dietary wise it is perhaps more similar to a potato, yams or cassava. Some countries express their recommendations in grams while others use state a recommended number of ”portions” or ”serving”. There is also no global standard for what constitute a serving. Adding all this together, the actual recommendations may vary considerably were they expressed in a comparable way in all countries.

When it comes to environment, the average fruit and vegetables are certainly not very beneficial. Few crops are sprayed with chemicals so frequently as fruit and vegetables and fruit and vegetable crop farming use a lot of irrigation, fertilizers, plastics (for protective structures) and machinery. Greenhouse production in colder climates also use very much energy for heating, and after harvest most of them are perishable and need resource demanding cold chains. In the end, a high share is discarded either by producers, middle men or consumers. Many vegetables are not even climate friendly if you count per kg, and if you count per energy unit or protein they are no better than many livestock products.