Guebert: ‘The ceaseless drive to endless increase…’

Today, however, there’s barely enough natural nitrogen in our biosphere to sustain one-half of the earth’s nearly eight billion people.

Alan Guebert
Alan Guebert
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It usually goes without notice or comment, but three of the plante’s key elements — carbon, nitrogen and oxygen — sit like ducks in a row as Element Six, Seven, and Eight, respectively, on the Periodic Table.

None is more important than the others but if there’s a first among equals it would be nitrogen, as a prescient report from Canada’s National Farmers Union (NFU-C) pointed out in August.

The reason for nitrogen’s importance is elegantly simple: it is an “essential part of DNA, RNA and all amino acids” which are the “key building blocks to the metabolisms of humans, other animals, plants, and all life.”

Equally important, the 76-page report emphasizes, “Nitrogen … (is the) key to photosynthesis, the foundation of virtually all Earth’s food chains, natural and agricultural.”

That emphasis cannot be overstated, notes Darrin Qualman, the report’s author, because “Human population, and thus the size and pace of our global economy are functions of nitrogen flows.”


Today, however, there’s barely enough natural nitrogen in our biosphere to sustain one-half of the earth’s nearly eight billion people. But humanity survives, even thrives, because of our cleverness: we discovered how to make “synthetic nitrogen” and that became life’s massive game changer.

It’s also a climate changer because “Nitrous Oxide, N20, the main GHG (or greenhouse gas) resulting from the nitrogen fertilizer, is one of the three main drivers of planetary warming,” right behind carbon dioxide and methane.

Pound for pound, however, “N20 has a warming effect approximately 300 times that of CO2.” Worse, “with an atmospheric residence period of more than 100 years, N20 emitted today will…disrupt the climate well into the 22nd century.”

Those two facts — that we are using more nitrogen than our biosphere can handle and that this extra N is a key GHG driver has put nitrogen — and in turn, one of its biggest users, agriculture — squarely in the gunsights of climate change advocates.

And not just crop farmers where synthetic fertilizers are critical inputs in grain production but also livestock farmers like those in the Netherlands whose 1.6 million dairy cows are sizable contributors to Europe’s nitrogen emissions.

Indeed, the Netherlands recently adopted the European Union’s recommended 50 per cent cut in N2O emissions as a principle method to address climate change. That move, understandable, angered farmers who, reported the New York Times Aug. 20, have “set fire to hay and manure along highways, dumped trash on roads…and blockaded food distribution centers with tractors” to register their fury.

The NFU-C report anticipates this well-founded anger and addresses it straight on. “(F)armers are not doing anything wrong” by using fertilizer, it stresses. Our levels of nitrogen use are functions….of the core 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 pushes for every-higher yields, production, export (and) agribusiness profit” in a “ceaseless drive to endless increase.”


Acknowledging that fact won’t make it easier or less “risky” for farmers to “renounce fertilizers and step outside (this) economic logic…Instead, the rules of the game must be changed.” writes Qualman. “Incentives need to be altered. Market power must be rebalanced… We must get less of what we need from industry and more from biology.”

If, for example, he suggests, Canada “rolled back” its nitrogen fertilizer use “by perhaps one-third” to “the tonnage (used) in the period 2008-2010” there would be “significant net benefits” for farmers and the environment.

But farmers can’t foot the entire bill for needed changes in fertilize use that would be wise for both farms and the environment, says Qualman in a telephone interview. “These significant costs would be shared by the government” because the key benefit, “a better environment,” would benefit all.

And this isn’t a “‘for or against,”’ fight because ‘it is likely that most farmers, other citizens and policymakers will be against continuing (Nitrogen’s) massive overuse.”

If, of course, we don’t want to cook our own goose, er, duck, first.

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