How to Kill a Billion People — Part 3: “Precautionary” CO2 Policy and Food Crisis

 Part I explained that almost half the world’s people are dependent for their food on industrially fixed nitrogen fertilizer, and that nitrogen fertilizer production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  Part II explored several plausible mechanisms by which forced suppression of COwould induce food shortages and starvation in the poorest nations.  Among the key mechanisms discussed was the upward forcing of prices, and diminished availability of fertilizer nitrogen essential to sustain the world’s population.

The  Danger of a False Definition of Sustainability

So what do you do when the price of nitrogen fertilizer is out of reach?  The answer is –  the options are very limited.  During the late 70’s crisis Olson and Halstead outlined various options – all problematic.  One could, they pointed out, rely more on grain legumes (beans, peas etc.), which fix their own nitrogen, but their nitrogen residual is insufficient to support large yields in succeeding crops, and their use is limited by climate and by diseases which proliferate with over use.  One could rely more on forage legumes (like alfalfa and sweet clover), which fix abundant surplus nitrogen, but their feed utility is limited to ruminant animals which are relatively inefficient food sources with respect to land use; and they also use a lot of water, limiting yields of succeeding grain crops in some climates.  One could use more manure, but this too relies on large livestock production; and the placement efficiency of manure nitrogen application is limited by free ranging in poor countries, while in advanced countries with concentrated manure facilities its application is limited by transportation energy requirements and cost to a relatively short radius of distance around the storage site.  Livestock, moreover, and particularly ruminant animals like cattle are also large emitters of methane, which has about 25 times the greenhouse warming potential of CO2.  Manure use has also been identified as one factor increasing gaseous losses of nitrogen as nitrous oxide, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. This renders cattle manure a poor fertilizer substitute from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Some are proposing that agricultural advancement in developing nations should avoid dependence on synthetic nitrogen, working solely with natural sources.  Bourne described a project called the “Soils, Food and Healthy Communities” project in northern Malawi, which concentrates on natural nitrogen sources, such as legumes – “the project’s research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new Green Revolution in Africa. ‘I find it deeply disturbing,’ she says.  ‘It’s getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agro-ecological methods for using local resources and skills.”  According to the Vatican News Service (ZENIT), the Catholic organization, Caritas, which is dedicated to relieving poverty, has recently lobbied the Vatican to reject the “Green Revolution” model which is dependent on synthetic nitrogen inputs, and to support a more “sustainable” approach to agriculture in developing nations, based on local input. 

Aside from the hint of class warfare suggested by the accusation of ‘evil profits’ for suppliers (profits are good if everyone benefits), the concerns over “monocultures” and environmental degradation through over use or misuse of nitrogen and pesticides are valid.  And there certainly are nutrient-related environmental problems that need to be solved.  But no legitimate proponent of the Green Revolution ever recommended monoculture, over-application or misapplication of fertilizer and pesticides.  Insofar as sustainability means the optimization of local resources, rotational use of legumes for fertility enhancement, better manure and compost management, and minimization of external inputs, it is the smart model.  It’s just good farming.  And there is certainly nothing wrong with organic farming as a personal preference, local necessity, or in some cases a medical requirement for personal comfort or health.  But the problem is that in the broad picture, “sustainability” defined solely in terms of natural inputs cannot “sustain” the current human population, much less that of the future.  It cannot feed the world! As Vaclov Smil explained in his essay “Detonator of the Population Explosion,” (Nature, July 1999):

“[E]ven the most assiduous recycling of organic wastes and the widest planting of legumes could not supply enough nitrogen for land-scarce, poor and populous nations. For several decades, virtually all the fixed nitrogen added to the fields of China, Egypt and Indonesia has come from synthetic fertilizers. When you travel in Hunan or Jiangsu, through the Nile Delta or the manicured landscapes of Java, remember that the children running around or leading docile water buffalo got their body proteins, via the urea their parents spread on the fields, from the Haber–Bosch synthesis of ammonia. Without this, almost two-fifths of the world’s population would not be here.”

 There is simply no way that enough natural nitrogen can be obtained to offset Haber-Bosch nitrogen now used to grow 60% of the world’s food, and support 40% of the world’s people.

Global Greenhouse Gas Policy and World Food Policy

In assessing the potential impact of carbon limits on human welfare, the policy landscape is littered with benign predictions of a smooth transition to alternative energy which are well-intended and conscientiously thorough, but just plain unrealistic.  For example, for the Waxman-Markey “Cap and Trade” bill, which represents only a small component of the domestic and international adjustments that will follow from an international greenhouse gas agreement, two models provided by the EPA and Department of Commerce have predicted that the economic impact on individual consumers and the overall effects on natural gas prices will be relatively minor.  Many of the assumptions of these models,however, have been challenged as simplistic.  Of most direct concern to the issue of food production costs: The EPA model summary states that the low cost and effect estimates assume full use of foreign offsets for carbon trading.  According to Roger Pielke, of the University of Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research,  this has the domestic effect of large expenditures for improving the carbon “footprint” overseas at the expense of domestic spending.  But in addition to Pielke’s observation, the foreign offset assumption fails to consider that beyond cap-and-trade an effective international greenhouse gas agreement must include ALL nations.  This means that any foreign offsets will be obtained at the expense of offsets already needed by those nations if they are to sustain and expand their economies.  If foreign nations are exempted from carbon limits, then the United States will be the economic victim of a lopsided agreement, similar to Kyoto.  If they are not exempt and all nations are pressed to meet international limits, the market for carbon offsets may prove to be quite sparse. The EPA model predictions of modest natural gas price increases (which affect nitrogen fertilizer costs), assume that the energy substitution for coal-fired energy, which will suffer large parasitic power losses and penalties (30 to 50%) in implementing carbon carbon capture, will be fully and adequately supplied by substitution of biofuels and nuclear energy, and will bypass the substitution of natural gas.  This bears some further examination. 

Most new gas-fired power plants are Natural Gas Combined Cycle (NGCC) plants.  The cost of CO2capture, and the parasitic power loss from carbon capture is substantially lower for NGCC power plants compared with coal-fired units. The natural response to carbon regulation will be, therefore, to increase the use of natural gas in power production.  The shift to natural gas as a power-generation feedstock would be expected to have a large effect on natural gas prices.  This has already been demonstrated by the large increase in natural gas prices that occurred in 2000 following an  increased  shift to NGCC power in the late 1990s and its  subsequent effect on increased fertilizer costs (see Part II).

The EPA model assumes that the shift to natural gas power generation will be averted by substitution of biofuels, other alternative energy sources, and nuclear power.  This in itself is a huge assumption, and begs major issues involving the potential safety and environmental impacts of nuclear power  plants adjoining major waterways in a world afflicted by terrorism, and issues of nuclear waste disposal that have historically been highly controversial and largely unresolved.  However, according to testimony by David Wilks, president of energy supply for XCEL Energy, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on October 28, 2009, cited in the “Oil Daily,” (Oct. 29, 2009)  “Gas has also emerged as one of the best sources of back-up generation for wind and solar energy facilities, since coal and nuclear plants cannot ramp up output fast enough to plug gaps when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.”  In other words, even if energy feedstocks shift to alternate fuels, increased natural gas use would be expected as an integral part of the shift.

Finally, the  “smooth” minor increase in gas prices simulated in the EPA model is inconsistent with the REAL history of natural gas prices, which have been highly volatile and responsive to a number of market factors.  Panelists testifying before the Senate Committee  expressed further concern that the conflicting pressures of carbon regulation and  sporadic increased demand for natural gas could place gas supplies in a “push-pull” situation which will exacerbate the volatility of gas prices for the consumer.  And the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer is one the largest consumers 

Some have proposed augmenting domestic natural gas supplies by importing liquified natural gas (LNG) from other nations.  Even here, however, there is a “fly in the ointment.”  In the September, 2007 issues of the journal ‘Environmental Science and Technology,’  Paulina Jaramillo and colleagues demonstrated that after consideration of liquefaction and transportation costs, the carbon footprint of power generated using imported LNG is larger than coal-fired power. 

Some are proposing that syngas production using electrolysis powered by wind energy will provide a viable substitute for gas or coal-fired ammonia production.  Wind-powered ammonia production may, indeed, help to augment the U.S. domestic ammonia supply.  But the world’s largest and most easily used fertilizer material, urea, requires a carbon feedstock.  Anhydrous ammonia gas is relatively difficult to use in developing nations because of large mechanical power requirements for soil injection and poor retention in some soils.  You can’t hand-spread ammonia or inject it using buffalo or oxen.  Compared with urea, ammonium sulfate has less than half the nitrogen content per unit weight, which would double relative shipping costs.  It is also acidifying, which makes it unsuitable for some soils. And ammonium nitrate has not only lower per-unit nitrogen content, but has the downside of being easily used to manufacture powerful home-made explosives – not considered desirable in an age of terrorism.  Moreover, the cost of wind energy itself will be subject to competitive market forces governed by demands from other energy users as  suppression of carbon-emitting feedstocks drive energy prices upward. 

The benign predictions of the EPA and Commerce Department models are just too simplistic to adequately predict the effects of domestic cap and trade, much less the massively complex adjustments that would result from a world-wide suppression of greenhouse gases.


It All Comes Down to Food

The issue finally comes home to food production.  Recently, Ford West, president of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) expressed deep concern over carbon trade policies,  in testimony before House and Senate Republicans. According to West, the U.S. nitrogen industry, which has already experienced significant declines in the past decade is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a cap-and-trade system. West further shared the findings of a study by Doane Advisory Services, commissioned by TFI, that domestic crop-production costs would increase by 6 to 12 billion dollars for eight commodities as a result of a cap and trade system. West’s final comments are prescient:  “Congress must tread cautiously and consider all implications and unintended consequences of proposed climate change policies including a cap-and-trade system.”  Indeed, this essay asserts that the unintended INTERNATIONAL and long-term consequences for the world food supply will likely far exceed the domestic consequences feared by TFI.  The world economic system is highly complex, and energy is so fundamental to the entire system that the uncertainties created by a massive re-engineering of the energy sector are immense.  To assert that we can adequately understand and control the forces unleashed by such massive short-term interventions rivals the academic hubris of those who think they can control the climate – and the consequences with respect to human welfare may be dreadful.

The Real CO Catastrophe

I have presented here only a limited facet of the probable global impact of imposed carbon dioxide limits on human welfare – the suppression of the high-yield agriculture, on which 60% of the world’s food and 40% of the world’s population depend, through the impairment of synthetic nitrogen production and other energy-related food production factors. With limited space, I  have not discussed other formidable issues such as competition for scarce water caused by carbon capture (a huge factor)  or increased costs for the transportation and distribution of food commodities. Neither  have I even considered the likely ramifications of energy induced economic suppression in other sectors which will effect the purchasing power of global food consumers.

Nitrogen supply has been called the “achilles heal” of the Green Revolution which has sustained world populations for the last half century.  Sufficient nitrogen to sustain and promote human welfare at current populations cannot be obtained by natural means alone.  The impairment of nitrogen production, combined with increased cost of transportation fuels, rising crop prices caused by competing energy markets for feed grains, increased field costs in agricultural production, depletion of water through use in carbon capture, and a world-wide economic malaise induced by crippling large segments of its energy supply threaten to jar a metastable world food supply into a dreadful collapse which will threaten the lives of hundreds of millions – particularly the poor.  Unlike Holdren’s predictions of climatic effects on human life, this is not speculative.  We are constantly skirting the edge of the ‘great hunger.’  No less than 2.6 billion people are now dependent on the enhanced crop production enabled by the Green Revolution, and Haber-Bosch nitrogen on which it was built. Because natural nitrogen fixation is essentially constant, almost every additional child born into the world will now be dependent on Haber-Bosch Nitrogen – billions more people.  We have already seen hints of the social unrest that will result from forced global CO2 limits, in the food riots of the last decade (see Part II).  

This writer is deeply concerned that the hysteria fanned by the hyperbolic catastrophism of the ‘carbon klatch’ and a sensationalist press have created a ‘Ready Fire Aim’ mentality, pushing the nation and the world toward drastic action, before cost-effective capture methods and energy alternatives are established and operational – and that based on a blind faith that they ever will be, at least on a cost level sufficient to sustain the world economy and agricultural production.  I would suggest that immanent dangers to the survival and welfare of large segments of the world’s population, presented by imprudent forced worldwide CO2 limits and their effect on the world economy, far outstrip the speculative anthropogenic catastrophes bandied by the climate-change pundits, and that we had better think twice before we blindly plunge our world into the suffering and disorder that forced carbon controls promise.

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.