How to Kill a Billion People — Part 1: The Food-Nitrogen-CO2 Nexus

In his 1986 book The Machinery of Nature, population control advocate Paul Ehrlich cited John Holdren, President Obama’s “science czar,” as stating that global warming from CO2 could cause the deaths through starvation of as many as a billion people by 2020. Since climate models haven’t yet successfully predicted local climate-change dynamics vital to crop assessment even in the short haul, much less the long-term effects of it, such a statement must be relegated to the realm of speculation, rather than scientific expertise.  Holdren admitted as much  when questioned by Senator David Vitter (R-LA) about Ehrlich’s quote during  his confirmation hearing.  “I wouldn’t have called it a prediction then and I wouldn’t call it a prediction now. I think it is unlikely to happen, but it is—,“ Holdren was interrupted here, but I’ll fill it in for him based on his own statement – it is speculation.  It’s the kind of inflammatory statement too many of the anthropogenic global warming people have been throwing around in the media for some time now: speculation by credentialed people misrepresented as expertise.

Less than a decade after Ehrlich’s citation, in 1993, Goddard agronomist Cynthia Rozenzweig and her  colleagues, in Research Report No. 3 of the Oxford University Environmental Change Unit, attempted a more rigorous estimate of the effects of anthropogenic climate change on the world food supply in a  a report titled Climate Change and World Food Supply.  Rozenweig’s goal was to estimate potential effects of climate change on the number of people “in danger of hunger” by 2060, assuming that the world population would double to 10 billion people.   She first simulated climate change scenarios for a doubled CO2 concentration using three general circulation models (GCMs).  Output from the climate models was used to simulate changes in yields for various crops. Rozenweig then used the predicted changes in food production to simulate world hunger using a world food trade model.  Results for two of three GCMs predicted 50 to 100 million additional people in danger of hunger by 2060 with no crop or economic adaptation; but with both agronomic and economic adaptation, simulated changes in population at risk of hunger due to climate change were negligible. As with all GCM-based predictions, the authors cited large uncertainties: “while the GCMs seemed to predict temperature changes rather well, there is a notable lack of consensus among GCMs in prediction of regional soil moisture changes …[and]…Furthermore, GCMs are not yet able to produce reliable projections of changes in climate variability, such as alterations in the frequencies of drought and storms, even though these could affect crop yields significantly.”

Now the Rozenweig report’s best estimates using 2060 GCM scenarios came nowhere near matching Holdren’s loose speculations for 2020;  but with the help of a slavish media, anthropogenic global-warming advocates like Holdren have been so successful in selling their speculative catastrophes that the consequences of their solutions in suppressing carbon have not been fully and adequately understood, or at worst have been brushed aside as attempts by greedy financial interests to protect their own interests at the expense of the survival of the earth.  Even among climate scientists who acknowledge the large uncertainties of GCMs, it has become a common mantra that precautionary prudence dictates an immediate large-scale global abatement of carbon emissions.  But the dismissal of economic impact using ideologically tinted rhetoric, is a poor substitute for a sober analysis of consequences; and  unfortunately, the impacts of carbon suppression involve much more than the private benefit of a few greedy interests. The sad fact is – there are far less speculative ways to kill a billion or so people than carbon emissions.  The trigger of the murder  weapon may lie  in the proposed cure  – the suppression of CO2 and its effect on world food production; and the victims will likely be the poor, not the rich.  Here’s how its going to work.

Nitrogen and the Web of Life
All life on this earth is made up of protein.  All protein is made up of amino acids; and all amino acids require nitrogen – that’s what the word “amino” comes from — the amine nitrogen group (NH2) attached to the carbon chain. Except for bacteria in the rumen of cud-chewing  animals, which can build amino acids from organic substances like urea, almost all protein in all animals, including humans, is built or transformed from amino acids manufactured by plants, either directly through consuming the  plants, or indirectly through consuming animals that obtained their amino acids from eating the plants.  The plants take in nitrogen, usually in the nitrate form, reduce it to the amine form, and construct amino acids.  All life on this planet, therefore, needs nitrogen — A LOT OF IT.

Besides a relatively small reservoir of nitrogen in rocks, almost all nitrogen used by plants is derived from the “fixation” of atmospheric nitrogen.  While most people think of oxygen when they think of the atmosphere (and some lately seem to think only of CO2 – which is less than 0.038% of the atmosphere’s composition), nitrogen, as N2 gas, is the main constituent of the atmosphere at about 78% of its total composition.  Fixation consists of transforming N2 gas to nitrate and transferring the nitrate from the atmosphere to the biosphere where it can be used by plants.

Fixation requires a lot of energy.  Nitrogen can be fixed by lightning during thunderstorms (every year about 25 pounds of nitrate-N per acre are added to the soil by prairie thunderstorms); and a lot of fixation is accomplished by microscopic organisms, including free-living soil microbes and symbiotic bacteria attached to the roots of some plant families, like legumes.  Nitrogen sources in manure or decomposing plant tissue or soil organic matter were almost all fixed from the atmosphere at one time or another, and are being reprocessed through various life and decay cycles.  A certain amount of nitrogen is “reduced” back to a gas and returned to the atmosphere every year. In fact, for most of the earth’s history most of the nitrogen cycled through the biosphere was fixed by natural agents.  This is no longer the case.

Nitrogen Synthesis and Human Survival
During the first half of the 20th century a German Scientist named Fritz Haber, and a German  engineer named Carl Bosch developed what many consider to be the greatest scientific advancement of the 20th century — the industrial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process involves the production of syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas) through the combustion of natural gas (methane) or coal at high temperatures and pressures, and the recombination of the hydrogen with atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia.  The nitrogen conversion step requires about 2,200 to 3,500 psi of pressure. That takes a lot of  energy!

Used as fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia gas (80% nitrogen) is “knifed” into the soil, where it reacts instantaneously with soil water to form ammonium ion, and is then transformed by bacteria to nitrate which is easily taken up by plants.  Alternately, ammonia can be synthetically combined with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide to form urea, which is easily and safely handled and transported as a solid, and contains about 46% nitrogen. Because of its solid form, high analysis and relative ease of handling, urea is the most common form of nitrogen fertilizer used on a world scale.  Ammonia can also be combined with nitric acid or sulfuric acid to form solid ammonium-nitrate (34% nitrogen) or ammonium-sulfate fertilizer (21% nitrogen), or with phosphoric acid to form the relative low analysis monoammonium-phosphate (MAP-11% nitrogen) or diammonium-phosphate (DAP-18% nitrogen). The synthetic fixation of nitrogen enabled by the Haber-Bosch process has resulted in the mass production of nitrogen fertilizer that has revolutionized world food production in the last half of the 20th century.

The importance of Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation for human welfare cannot be overstated.  In the December 2009 issue of the Beacon I explained how the “Green Revolution,” under the leadership of men like Norman Borlaug, averted the starvation of hundreds of millions of people, mostly in highly populated underdeveloped nations, between 1945 and 2000.  These catastrophic deaths were prevented by the development and dissemination of crop varieties capable of producing high yields. But the hitch is —  those yields were —  and are totally dependent on high nitrogen fertility. Just how important Haber-Bosch nitrogen is can be illustrated by the following statistic.  The current population of the earth is about 6 billion people.  According to Michael Fryzuk (Nature, Feb. 5, 2004) about 60% of all food consumed, and 40% of all human sustenance is produced using Haber-Bosch nitrogen.  This means that natural nitrogen fixation can account for less than  half of the food now produced on this planet.   And almost half of the world’s population, about 2.4 billion people, are now dependent on Haber-Bosch nitrogen for survival.  Because global natural nitrogen fixation is essentially constant,  almost all additional populations will depend on Haber-Bosch nitrogen for survival in the future.

Many more people depend on fertilizer nitrogen for a better quality of life, as developing nations strive for a more diverse diet.  For example, according to Joel Bourne Jr. in National Geographic (June, 2009), the Chinese consumption of pork increased 45% between 1993 and 2005 so that “even China, the second largest corn producing nation on the planet, can’t grow enough grain to feed all its pigs.”  And the Chinese only consume about 40% as much meat as Americans.  It takes about five times the  grain consumed through pork, and about ten times the  grain consumed by beef to produce the equivalent calories received from eating grain alone. As a result of increasing standards of living in developing nations, world consumption of grain increased from about 815 million metric tons in 1960 to 2.16 billionmetric tons in 2006. According to Bourne, “world meat consumption is expected to double by 2050.  That means we’re going to need a whole lot more grain.”

The Food-Nitrogen-CO2  Nexus and World Food Supply

Unfortunately, the Green Revolution is on a collision course with the alleged climate catastrophes.  The Green Revolution, which has enabled us to feed the world, depends on fertilizer N.  But the expanded use of fertilizer nitrogen enhances greenhouse gas emissions.  First, the synthesis of fertilizer nitrogen depends on natural gas, or alternately coal to provide the feedstocks and energy for the production of syngas.  In terms of energy expenditure, Haber-Bosch nitrogen uses about 1% of all the energy consumed by people on the planet.  In terms of CO2 dynamics, this means that every ton of ammonia fertilizer produced transfers carbon from the deep earth reservoir where it has been trapped for millions of years to the atmosphere as CO2.  If the ammonia is further processed to urea, the CO2 is temporarily sequestered in the carbon component of the urea, but it is quickly released again as CO2 when urea is hydrolyzed in the soil, and the nitrogen is transformed again to ammonium.  To give you an idea of the magnitude of effect on CO2 emissions, Neal Rauhauser, in a “white paper”  titled “A National Renewable Ammonia Architecture” (May 5, 2009), estimated that each ton of ammonia  produced from methane releases about 2 tons of CO2.  Each ton  produced from coal releases about 4 tons of CO2.  About 69% of current global ammonia production uses coal or petroleum coke as a feedstock, and 30% uses natural gas as a feedstock.  Resulting emissions are about 361 million tons of CO2 from 95 million tons of ammonia produced using coal, and 74 million tons of CO2 from 91 million tons of ammonia produced using natural gas.  The total, 435 million tons of CO2, is about 1.6 percent of the estimated annual global CO2 emissions (27,250 million tons).  Rauhauser speculates that as natural gas sources deplete and coal feedstocks increase, the percent of total CO2 emissions from ammonia production would be expected to increase to about 1.9% of total global emissions.  The reader should be aware that these are approximate, as estimates of total emissions vary somewhat from different sources.

But even further, worldwide use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer increases the global gaseous emissions of nitrous oxide gas from the soil.  Under cool, wet conditions, soil nitrate can be “denitrified” to nitrous oxide gas, which has about 300 times the greenhouse warming potential of  CO2.  According to Laura Lipps, in the July 2010 “Crops, Soils and Agronomy News,” nitrous oxide accounts for about 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Nitrous oxide emissions are increased by the sheer proportional increase in soil nitrogen from the application of fertilizer N.  But in addition, cool and moist conditions enhanced by farming methods, like zero-tillage, which are supposed to trap carbon in the soil to offset greenhouse gases, may enhance nitrous oxide emissions, limiting the benefits of soil capture.  The point is — if greenhouse gases are the problem they are claimed to be by some, nitrogen fertilizer is no small contributor.

The next issue explores the plausible effects of CO2 suppression on the world food supply, and the mechanisms by which it will occur.

William Schuh and his wife, Chen, live in Mandan ND, where they raised three children. William is a senior hydrologist and soil scientist for the North Dakota State Water Commission, where he has been employed for 26 years. He has authored or coauthored a number of research journal papers and state reports on a wide range of topics related to agriculture and ground-water resources. He has also served as an advocate and lobbyist for parental rights in education, and the sanctity of human life, and has authored several testimonies, reports and articles in relation to these issues.