Nitrogen fertilizers are like so many other things our modern industrial civilization requires, absolutely necessary to maintain our current trajectory of continuous growth and increasingly threatening to a sustainable future.
Recognising the damage caused by synthetic fertiliser, the SFT and others in the sustainable farming sector have long been advocating a switch toward more agroecological farming systems.
A return to mixed farming would bring with it numerous blessings: reduced water pollution, greater agricultural biodiversity, healthier soils, reduced reliance on pesticides and herbicides, more farm jobs and more varied and interesting work.
Nitrogen fertilizers are not just a technicality, they are a major building block in the industrial, global and capitalist agriculture system. As such they both drive and enable the increasing metabolic rift between human society and the ecosystem that sustains it.
Worldwide, there are now over a thousand coastal areas where fish can’t breathe. The nitrogen that makes crops grow is also destroying offshore ecosystems.
Climate change deniers often claim that carbon dioxide cannot be harmful because plants need it to grow. The same false argument can be made about nitrogen, and our reply is the same: too much of a good thing can be deadly. Organisms and ecosystems that evolved in a world where the supply of reactive nitrogen was strictly limited are now being disrupted, in many cases destroyed, by an unprecedented nitrogen glut.
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.
Greater action to address the root causes of air pollution from the agricultural sector is needed. To face the growing environmental crisis caused by nitrogen pollution there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that we produce food.
So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.
In Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries, European governments are beginning to push farmers, industry, and municipalities to cut back on fertilizers and other sources of nitrogen that are causing serious environmental harm.
The one thing you need to know about President Obama’s plan to address climate change is that the most it will accomplish is slowing very slightly the pace at which the world is currently hurtling toward catastrophic climate change.