Fear Not the Farms and the Fertilizer

By Michael Fumento

Copyright 2001 the National Post

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"Quick, ma. Grab the kids and the cat. The farms are comin’." Yes, if present trends continue, by 2050 the world will be plowing under massive amounts of land for farms. Phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizer runoff will cause an explosion of algae in river outlets, killing off plants and marine animals.

The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse?

"Habitat destruction would cause unprecedented ecosystem simplification, loss of ecosystem services, and species extinctions."

So goes the thesis in an article (henceforth "Scary Study") that managed to slither into the prestigious magazine Science.

Alas, if trends had continued last year with the Nasdaq, I might be wealthy today instead of looking for a 30-story building to jump from in a city with nothing higher than 13 stories.

For better or worse, trends never continue.

Trends reflect underlying factors. And the factors underlying farming and crop nutrients make clear that you needn’t fear waking up in the morning to find a bag of fertilizer lying next to you.

A co-author of the paper is David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist and professional public hand-wringer. Schindler’s list of horribles includes global warming, acid rain, hormone disruptors, species extinction, pesticides, PCBs, hydroelectricity, mercury and a shortage of frogs. Whew!

He claims Canada may soon run out of fresh water, notwithstanding it’s sitting on a tenth of the world’s supply. Still, the Science paper is probably correct in predicting that world population will grow about 50% by 2050, and that we’ll need much food to feed these people. Beyond that, the analysis flounders.

Scary Study ostensibly relies on data from the World Health Organization’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In "Fertilizer Requirements in 2015 and 2030," published last year, the FAO developed projections of global fertilizer use.

Unlike Scary Study, FAO’s nutrient forecasts are based on actual estimates of crop production by country for 34 crop categories. It projected global use of both nitrogen and phosphorous combined would increase about 13 percent from 1995-1997 to 2015. It would increase about 24 percent by 2030.

But Scary Study estimates an increase of 60 percent nitrogen and 40 percent phosphorous just by the year 2020. It then projects that to stunning increases of 170 and 140 percent by 2050.

This is as if anybody who doesn’t work for the Psychic Hotline has the least idea what the world will be like in 2050. But lead author David Tilman of the University of Minnesota apparently thinks he’s Nostradamus, telling the Montreal Gazette that, "We’re setting a very bad course for people 50, 100, 200 or 1,000 years from now." A thousand?

Projections aside, let’s look at what we know to be true. In the U.S., nitrogen use peaked out back in 1994, while phosphorous used peaked way back in 1977. In 1999 our farmers used about 11 percent less phosphorous than they once did. So much for simple trend lines.

None of this is surprising if you know that the history of technology is the history of getting more for less, whether it’s more transistors on a computer chip, more crops per acre, and more crops per pound of fertilizer used.

Indeed, U.S. farmers have become so efficient at growing more grain on less land that for decades now that acreage on U.S. farms has dropped by almost a tenth since 1980. As for fertilizer usage, U.S. corn farmers used 5.24 million tons of nitrogen to produce 6.4 billion bushels of corn in 1980. By 2000, slightly less nitrogen was used to produce more than 50 percent more corn. That also means a lot more nitrogen applied was taken up by the crop and a lot less was available to run off into the environment.

Public Enemy Number One?

Further, the Scary Study calculation simply ignore technological innovations. Biotechnology is already playing a huge role in reducing pesticide spraying and will soon help reduce fertilizer needs, too.

For example, Mexican botanists have inserted a gene into plants that allows maximum growth using half the fertilizer normal plants needed. It could be in commercial crops in three years. Florida scientists inserted an algae gene into crop plants, boosting yields by almost a third because the new strain converts nitrogen fertilizer far more efficiently.

Not that biotech is the only solution. For example, in wealthier nations now farmers now use satellites to determine exactly how much fertilizer is needed and where.

As to small-scale farmers in poorer countries, the theme of a recent FAO meeting was that they have many scientific, cheap techniques to make better use of natural nutrients.

These, explained an FAO official, "have the potential for water pollution, protecting biodiversity and promoting more sustainable use of agricultural land."

Even the alleged doom from fertilizer-induced algae blooms and subsequent oxygen depleting is exaggerated in Scary Study. The so-called "dead zone" of oxygen-depleted water at the mouth of the Mississippi River is widely blamed on fertilizer runoff. Yet the zone has been increasing even as fertilizer runoff has been decreasing. "There are millions of square miles of ocean that are naturally hypoxic," Derek Winstanley, chief of the Illinois State Water Survey in Champaign told me. In other words, at least in these areas fertilizer had nothing to do with it.

There are plenty of things to worry about such as me landing on you when I finally find that building. But coming home to find your flower garden converted to wheat and your toilet overflowing with algae shouldn’t be among them.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on pesticides.