The Overlooked Ecological Benefits of Fertilizer (and Fossil Fuel) Use

Guest essay by Indur M. Goklany


The BBC in an otherwise good article by Tim Harford, the well-known economist and a regular contributor to The Financial Times and Slate, reminds us that fossil fuels are essential to manufacturing nitrogenous fertilizer and, therefore, to feeding humanity. He then goes on to note that the use of such fertilizers contributes to various environmental problems:

 [They emit] compounds like nitrous oxide [which] are powerful greenhouse gases.

They pollute drinking water.

They also create acid rain, which makes soils more acidic, disrupting ecosystems, and threatening biodiversity.]

When nitrogen compounds run off into rivers, they likewise promote the growth of some organisms more than others.

The results include ocean “dead zones”, where blooms of algae near the surface block out sunlight and kill the fish below.

Unfortunately, this list, like current calculations of the “social cost of carbon” (SCC) calculations, omits any mention of what is probably the single most important environmental impact of fertilizers (and fossil fuels), viz., the increased productivity of land not only helps feed humanity but that it also save land for nature.

In a previous post on this blog titled, Have Fossil Fuels Diminished the World’s Sustainability and Resilience?, I reported that fossil fuels provide at least 60% of humanity’s food and clothing, which would otherwise have to be obtained through increased conversion of land to agriculture.

About 80% of this 60% contribution from fossil fuels is due to nitrogenous fertilizers produced via the Haber-Bosch process.[1] Thus, absent fossil fuels, global cropland would have had to increase by at least 150 percent to meet current food demand.  In other words, to maintain the current level of global food production, at least another 2.3 billion hectares of habitat would have to be converted to cropland, over and above the 1.5 billion hectares currently used for cropland worldwide. This is equivalent to the combined total land area of the United States, Canada, and India.

Considering that habitat conversion is widely acknowledged to be the single greatest threat to biodiversity,  the additional stress on ecosystems and global biodi­versity from the conversion of an additional 2.3 billion hectares or more of habitat to cropland is inestimable.

But conversion of habitat to cropland is already the greatest threat to biodiversity (see, e.g., here).  By reducing such conversion even as they enabled greater food production, fossil fuels not only saved humanity from nature’s whims, but they also shielded much of the rest of nature (that is, habitat that has not already been lost or degraded) from humanity’s covetous gaze.

There is yet another avenue by which fertilizer use helps enhance nature. Mr. Harford’s article hints at this, but does not elaborate. Specifically, nitrogenous fertilizers increase the productivity not only of the specific lands on which they are applied but any other land that they end up on via a variety of air, water or other environmental pathways. One consequence of this, is that the whole earth’s productivity has been enhanced. According to a recent paper, such nitrogen deposition, to which fertilizer usage and fossil fuel combustion contribute, may be responsible for 9% of the increase in the earth’s greening from 1982–2009. [By contrast, the paper attributes 70% of the additional greening to carbon fertilization.]

[1] Goklany, Humanity Unbound: How Fossil Fuels Saved Humanity from Nature and Nature from Humanity. Policy Analysis, No. 715, Cato Institute, Washington, DC (2012).


73 thoughts on “The Overlooked Ecological Benefits of Fertilizer (and Fossil Fuel) Use

  1. The points made are extremely important. However the presentation of the points is not as clear as they could be. Thank you for framing some of what the climate consensus extremist point of view ignores.

  2. That sustainability word again. All species will increase in population until they reach their own level of sustainability. If things go bad they die off and if conditions are right they breed like rabbits. Humans are no different but somehow or another we have not reached that rather unpalatable state where we die off in droves just because mother nature turns against us. Why? We use our smarts. We invented fertilizers to beat starvation, we invent drugs that prolong our lives, etc. Happily, we use science and engineering to nut out our problems. So far our smarts have helped us advance considerably and we have managed to work past unintended consequences. We are probably smart enough to survive an ice age without the threat of extinction. I, for one, think fertilizers are net good.

    • You might want to crack open a history book an reacquaint yourself with some of humanities mass die-offs, due to mother nature. The black death (bubonic plague) spring to mind. Almost 1/3 of the known population in died off. Before anyone begins saying that human overcrowding caused the die-off, they should ask themselves, “What mechanisms affect populations that have overstepped their sustainability level?” ….Over crowding = starvation and disease.

      • Interestingly enough, Homo sapiens appears to be a unique species in that all of the historical evidence we have to date supports the contention that human reproduction rates DECREASE with increasing wealth. Take a look at any of Hans Rosling’s excellent presentations and you will see that the critical factor in population growth appears to be poverty. Eg.:

        Sustainability is not a biological concept, it is a social one – created by the (essentially) Malthusian idea that humans have no controls on their population growth. This has been so thoroughly refuted that it is a crying shame to still hear the term “sustainability” used in any development context.

      • @ Rob, 8.52am
        You have my vote for comment of the day. The eco nuts banned DDT and see where that led us? Millions die from Malaria and the poor just keep on making babies to replace the ones they lose. Give them healthcare, electricity, schooling and every time the population decreases.
        At least allow the use of DDT to fight Malaria.

    • It should not be overlooked that there is no need for the fertilizer, added cropland, or food, if the world population is drastically reduced. THAT is where the environmentalists are coming from. Per the goals of Agenda 21, about 6/7ths or more of the world population would be gone and even less cropland would be needed than we use now, much less.

      • Most of the world takes exception to Agenda 21, created by mostly progressive Europeans and Americans. Also, the single big factor in reducing births is education and increased wealth. See Hans Rosling above. The amount of births have been stabilized at around 2 billion for some time. The problem for the next 50 years is that most of us are living longer and Rosling calculates that the population will level off at around 11 million for awhile because of it.

        But what does that matter? The rest of the world is learning to feed itself by efficiencies in growing crops and animals. Their standards of living are growing. The billions of people in Asia and Africa, as their populations and economies grow, will be deciding the size of the human race AND how it lives. Populations in the Western Hemisphere and Europe are pretty much stable or slowly decreasing. Our influence will wain.

      • Every time I get the opportunity, I suggest to hard core environmentalists and assorted eco-fascists that if they are truly concerned about human over population, they should lead by example by removing themselves from the equation first.

      • I would love put those 7 environmentalists in a room and leave them in there until they decide which 1 of the 7 is saved and which 6 will be exterminated… :)

  3. So, if its as simple as that, we can run an experiment.
    Anybody here can do it.

    Its a bit like cooking and of course Boys don’t do things like that plus, chronically depressed people ‘can’t be bothered’, think they know already, will pass the buck and believe whatever their friends tell them.

    It goes thus: Take a bucket of sand, ideally from a sandy desert but from a builders merchant, the beach or kiddies play-pit will do.
    Add add as much water, CO2, sunlight and nitrogen fertiliser to it and plant something in it. A seed, baby plant whatever. Then watch see what happens. Ideally compare it to a similar plant/seed in a bucket of more conventional dirt.
    Unless you’ve lost touch with all reality and entirely live your life clicking on links and swallowing other people’s garbage, you will know the result beforehand.

    There’s just a teensy weensy bit more to growing stuff than adding fertiliser

    • Overuse of nitrogen can make skinny/sick plants regardless of any other condition. I fail to see your point. Water is good for plants, and drowning them does not prove otherwise.

      • Maybe we should try his experiment with sand plants, they would love it :) But yeah, it’s gonna fail otherwise… And I still can’t see his point. If you add more Co2, nitrogen and water to your normal soil plant it’s gonna grow better than the one without anything…

    • There’s just a teensy weensy bit more to growing stuff than adding fertiliser

      You are correct, …… Peta from Newark, ….. you hafta make damn sure the temperature of the “growing” environment is conducive to the growth of whatever it was that you planted.

      Even if or when your growth “medium” is a hydroponic one.

    • A better experiment, and more germane to the argument, would be to plant two plots. Start with the same soil in both, but in one use fertilizer and in the other don’t. After several cycles of growth and harvest, see which one produces the most food. This will make it obvious that fertilizer is necessary, but not sufficient for modern agriculture. And I don’t think the article implies anything else.

    • Your experiment overlooks the fact that increasing amounts of vegetables are being grown in hydroponic greenhouses where the plant roots never see dirt. With increased CO2 levels of up to 1600 ppm and a steady 85 degree temperature plants go crazy and the amount of fruit output is huge — 6 to 10 times normal.

      One could conclude that soil and 400 ppm CO2 levels are both a hindrance to plant growth.

  4. Like most who are uninformed about nitrogenous fertiliser the first step is the production of ammonia using the Haber process and this emits a lot of CO2; around 25t/hr for an 1100tpd plant. However it’s simply incorrect to focus on this, instead focus needs to be on the life cycle of the product produced. The ammonia is converted; in part, to nitric acid and this and ammonia result in ammonium nitrate fertiliser. Used on the land the much more vigorous plants take up more CO2 than is produced in the process so the net effect is CO2 negative. Following the Oklahoma bombing there where calls to ban ammonium nitrate until it was pointed out the benefit to agriculture is $7 return for every $1 spent on fertiliser so any ban was quickly shelved.

    • Note that fossil fuels also enabled humanity to end its greatest scourge – that of slavery.

      Before we had fossil fuels, we had animal power – humans and other beasts of burden. That is how wealthy people lived in luxury, and great civilizations built their monuments, buildings and infrastructure.

      Without fossil fuels, we would still be living in these cruel times – fully 86% of global primary energy is STILL provided by fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas. Renewables provide less than 2%, despite huge subsidies.

      I work in the fossil fuel industry. When challenged by idiot greens, I politely explain to them that fossil fuels keep their families from freezing and starving to death.

      Best, Allan

      • Something you might also try – I succeeded in doing this to great hilarity with fund raising eco zealots at a busy intersection – is to ask them to underdress keeping on only those items they think do not contain hydrocarbon derived materials. It forces all and sundry to confront the realities of their plastic ponchos, their rubber boots, the insulation in their gloves and the spandex in their bras and undies – and it shows them up for the ignorant dunces they are.

  5. Petro-chemicals grow more food in less space? Who’d a thunk that? Spain has vast tracts of land under plastic, a greenhouse, fed with fertilisers and controlled water, and they feed the EU zone with out-of-season foods all year. Whether that is a good thing or not is not the issue. The issue is we can make food pretty much anywhere and at any time. And yet we have people go hungry and we have vast mountains of food that goes to waste every day.

    • They also enrich the CO2 levels in the greenhouse to promote better growth but our green friends wouldn’t like to know that.

      • Agreed! That is why many greenhouse growers can produce more than 1 crop per year. CO2 does this with well controlled resource management practices.

    • why do you care ? really ? are you related to them ? (I hope not since that would show a stunning lack of familial support) Do you really care if they go hungry ? I think you consider yourself a more virtuous person because you care but guess what, I don’t care and the end result is the same … some people go hungry and often due to their own mistakes. Let them sort it out :)

      • Most of the people in this world who suffer from true hunger, do so because that’s what their “government” wants for them.

      • So saidith: Kaiser Derden – January 6, 2017 at 5:51 am

        I think you consider yourself a more virtuous person because you care but guess what, I don’t care and the end result is the same

        Kaiser D, ……. I sure hope you are not one of those avidly vocal Pro-lifers or Anti-abortionist because 100% of them only care about the fetus being birthed, …… whereas 98% of those avidly vocal Pro-lifers or Anti-abortionist DON’T CARE, …… nor gives a damn, ….. whether or not the children that were born due to their Pro-lifer “actions” are well fed and cared for by their parent, parents or guardian.

        IMHO, the ultimate hypocrite is one who claims he/she is “pro-life” and really cares about “saving the life of a developing fetus” by preventing the performing of abortions …….. but then the aforesaid he/she really doesn’t give a damn if the child that they saved from being aborted, is mistreated and dies due to lack of care and nutrition.

      • OH, my, my, …… just “sociopathic” ….. and not also racist, sexist, bigoted, denialist, homophobic, Koch Bro’s employee, etc., etc.?

        I surely feel slighted and saddened, now.

    • Agreed. Hunger in the world today is a function much more of politics than food production. That is an indisputable fact.

  6. From the Beeb’s article:

    Plants need nitrogen: it is one of their five basic requirements, along with potassium, phosphorus, water and sunlight.

    Spot the omitted ‘basic requirement’?

    After its 28-Gate affair, mentioning any benefit of CO2 is verboten.

  7. I am about to apply for a grant.
    My project is to develop a surfactant to apply to clouds.
    When the raindrops fall, they will resist the take-up of Nitrogen and therefore save the planet.
    Nasty stuff that Nitrogen – we should tax it.

    • toorightmate, ….. don’t forget the snowflakes, ……. the “poor man’s nitrogen fertilizer”.

  8. Perhaps I missed it, but shouldn’t the importance of nitrogen in producing protein be at least given a mention?

  9. Good to see the significance of the Haber-Bosch process pointed out. It is probably the single most beneficial invention of modern times. It also illustrates what mankind does when “running out of” resource X — guano in this case.

  10. Eutrophication from nitrogen cannot be pinpointed to agricultural application of fertilizer because bacterial blooms also contribute and many of those bacteria fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into nitrates or nitrite. In fact, all that is needed for a Eutrophication event is a carbon source. As in freshwater life dying upon entrance into saline oceans.

    Yes, phosphates were a problem ( where calcium was low as calcium phosphate sediments out of the water column) in Eutrophication and subsequent biological oxygen demand choking off fauna..but phosphate remains in the water column (unless Ca comes along and precipitation. .). Nitrites are oxidized to nitrates and then they are reduced to their atmospheric gases .

    The most common nitrogen fertilizer used in agriculture is anhydrous ammonia which is actually a pro-fertilizer as it needs bacterial activity to oxidize it to nitrate. As such, it does not leach out of the organic clay surface substrate where it is formed.

    Anmonium nitrate is on its way out as too many illicit hazards along with a few disasters of recent (West TX, the town).

    Urea shows promise but biuret levels are difficult to control, making it expensive.

  11. This article illustrates a more general point.
    Talking about externalities is only relevant if:

    A) All externalities are considered.
    B) They are evaluated for significance.

    In many debates point B is short-cut by assuming significance is proportional to potential harm. Not proportional to risk (which includes the probability of it happening) and not proportional to the impact. Only potential harm is considered significant.

    This leads to point A being missed. All positive impacts are excluded because they are not harmful and so, supposedly, not significant.
    Many debates are skewed by not considering positive externalities.

  12. My apologies for the redundancies in the post. The first para, including the quote is indeed repeated. Also, the first sentence of the second last para is redundant. The post would get a D for composition, but (I hope) the content is illuminating.

    Perhaps the moderator can fix the redundancies. Thanks.

  13. The problem is not fertilizer but runoff of fertilizer that isn’t taken up by crops. This has been a recognized problem for decades. And for decades farmers have been changing their methods to minimize runoff. Here is a bullet list of problems and solutions.

    Farmers, including large “corporate” farmers, don’t like runoff because it means that they are spending more money than needed to produce their crop whether it is corn, soybeans, beef, pork or milk.

    Now if we can get people to stop putting nitrogen on their lawns and golf courses four times a year …

    • Once in the fall has always been sufficient for me. But then I have 2 acres and don’t want the grass to grow too well, otherwise I would have to mow it more often.

    • Per the link, point 6. Nitrogen has a long term effect, HUNDREDS of miles downstream at the oceans where eutrophication creates dead zones. This is NOT runoff of nitrates from agriculture but combined biologic oxygen demand from all sources.

      Nitrogen is in the air. Freshwater bacteria only need a carbon source to fix it to nitrite and then oxidize it to nitrate. Rather than being a fertilizer issue, it is freshwater life encountering salt water that causes the problem. Rapid death of freshwater life encountering salt water makes for dead zones. This has happened for millions of years.

  14. It seems unclear that Mr. Goklany has read the article in question. The title is “How fertiliser helped feed the world” and the very first sentence states: “It has been called one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century, and without it almost half the world’s population would not be alive today.” So how is this downplaying the positive role of fertiliser?

    • Did you read beyond the headline and first sentence? Yet more BBC approved global warming manbearpig terror.

      • It would seem that one of the points is that the climate obsessed media ignores the requirements of CO2 + fertilizer + water + sunlight. And especially misrepresents the CO2 & Fertilizer roles.

  15. I have a lot of time for Tim Hartford. His More or Less analysis of energy saving lightbulbs is a classic (cherrypicking best case figures for light output and lifetime to make them look more competitive.) The bbc podcast might be still available.

    He usually sticks to the numbers. I’m surprised he didn’t do a proper cost/benefit analysis. Or maybe he did and, maybe like the necessary CO2 bit, it was edited out.

  16. As a former wheat rancher, I can state with confidence that a high percentage of grain is oil. It’s not just fertilizer, but the fossil hydrocarbons in pesticides and the diesel and gas fuel fo power our agricultural and transport vehicles.

    Breeding more productive strains of wheat wouldn’t occur without the agricultural chemicals which the new varieties are designed to optimize.

    The world would starve without fossil “fuels”.

    • Land which yielded 35 bu/acre with fallow rotation in the middle of the past century produces 100 or more on dry land now. Irrigated, of course even more. The irrigation also relies on fossil fuel power, despite the presence of hydro power dams. The windmills just mess things up, interfering with optimal use of the dams and taking cropland out of production.

      • And this enables my idiot state government to push for ethanol additives to vehicle fuels, when there are people starving elsewhere, and not very far away at that!

    • Ugh! Link misspecified. Let’s try this: The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet

      Alternatively, search for “Goklany” and “Improving State” on Amazon.

      PS: Just before submitting this reply I tried this on Amazon and some sellers are offering the paperback version for $964.04 (used) or $2,847.88 (new)!!! As the author, I confess that although it’s a great book it’s not that great.

    • “… but the “Reply” link was missing.

      Maybe it is just me and my computer but WordPress has had a few hiccups in the last 3 weeks or so.
      Of course it helps if one types all of and the correct characters.
      Reminds me of the days of 80-column punched cards and waiting for the daily computer run to find out one character was wrong. We have made progress.

      • @ John. I came into the computer world when info was put on a paper roll, To this day I wonder how much things got screwed up and info misinterpreted after slicing a broken roll together again

      • Aaaahhh so, ….. the memories, …….

        It t’was 2 steps “up” from the telegraph “key” to the “keyboard” generated punched paper tape.

        Then it t’was 5 more steps “up” from the punched paper tape to the “keyboard” generated 80/90 column punched paper card.

        Then it t’was 10 more steps “up” from the 80/90 column punched paper card to the “keyboard” generated reel of 1/2” magnetic tape. (MDS Data Recorder)

        Then along came the modems, ….. the Mini-computers, ….. and the Personal Computers ………….

  17. Listening to the audio book “The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels” by Alex Epstein through my favorite service at the library, Hoopla.
    Having Alex read to me about the amazing benefits of using concentrated solar energy, fossil fuels, to feed the world makes me smile. The use of reliable concentrated energy means less pollution, longer life, and more humans. Go humanity!
    Check it out!

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