Fertilizer is a Problem to be Solved
The Fertilizer (42d) Edition of the Negative Foods Newsletter
The Haber-Bosch process is widely credited with enabling the world population to keep growing without running out of food (it’s also credited with the rise of Hitler, but that’s another story). I can’t recommend enough The Alchemy of Air, a gripping book about science, business, and the history of how an industrial chemical process changed the world.
The Haber-Bosch process creates synthetic fertilizer by “fixing” nitrogen from the air in a way that can be applied to crops. A scientific process turns air into bread! It is a marvelous innovation, at least until you consider that we burn natural gas to do it.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield concluded that the carbon footprint of bread isn’t mainly from tractors or trucks, or bakeries and butter. It’s the fertilizer. Their LCA shows that 43% of bread’s greenhouse gas emissions are from fertilizers used to grow wheat.
Over the past several decades, synthetic fertilizer use has risen steadily, and is today responsible for about about 20% of agricultural emissions, or 2.4% of TOTAL global emissions. To reverse climate change, we have to fix the emissions of the food system, and for that we will need to eliminate the emissions of synthetic fertilizers.
Not all food is grown with synthetic fertilizer. In the United States, OMRI compliance (which defines organic production) prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers release fewer greenhouse gasses, so is organic the solution to this problem? OMRI-compliant fertilizers are pointing us in the right direction, but this doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. Remember that close to zero percent of U.S. farmland is organic.
Regenerative Agricultural Practices. The first and most obvious and most important path forward is to convert more farmland to engage in practices that naturally increase the fertility of soil. This was well understood for thousands of years until - fairly recently - we began farming in ways that degraded the soil. Rotating crops, refraining from tilling, cover cropping, mulching, and integrating livestock are all practices that can reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers. Consider the absence of synthetic fertilizers at Numi’s tea estates, the cattle farms supplying beef to Hickory Nut Gap, or the farms growing beans for Patagonia Provisions Green Lentil Soup. Regenerative practices vary based on particular crops and environments, and we need clear definitions and standards, but this is the main transformation we need in order to reverse climate change with our food system. Sourcing products with the ROC label is a great way to know that your food is grown with crops fertilized properly for the planet.
Wild Caught Food. Patagonia Provisions’s salmon from Lummi Island does not require any fertilizer, nor does the venison consumed by a hunter or the raspberries foraged by a child. Assuming sustainable harvesting practices, wild caught food could be considered a gold standard for carbon footprints.
Upcycled Food. Humans waste an awful lot of food, and we can find terrific case studies of products made from food & agricultural waste. Do Good Chicken converts supermarket food waste into feed used to grow “carbon reduced” chickens. Blue Hill at Stone Barns creates gorgeous meals from food waste. The Spare Food Company is building an entire business on creating food products, like probiotic tonics, from food waste. This is a massive area of growth and its rise will reduce the emissions associated with synthetic fertilizers.
Renewably Produced Synthetic Fertilizer. At some future point, perhaps we can “electrify” the production of synthetic fertilizers using renewable energy, but this outcome remains many years away, and I’m not yet clear that this will improve our soils. I’m in a “wait and see” stance on this scientific development. Your feedback is welcome on this matter.
Replacing Haber-Bosch with Carbon Neutral/Negative Processes. I asked this newsletter community for feedback about fertilization processes we should scale up to replace Haber-Bosch to reverse climate change with the food system.
Russ Conser of Blue Nest Beef: “Of course much buzz about Nitricity lately, but don't forget about PrairieFood - a new spin on the oldest fertility technology of all: manure. Companies like Holganix and Kula Bio, with different approaches to soil probiotics, should also be on your radar.”
Simon Evill of Pelican Ag: “The right fertility inputs, from a systems perspective, is best served at the local and decentralized level - where market incentives and risks are more balanced between the farmer and the supplier. That will be a more resilient set-up - technical expertise, employment and prosperity will be more evenly distributed. Products will be more diverse in their biology and geared toward context specific regenerative management strategies.”
Clint Brauer of Greenfield Robotics: “PrairieFood. But with discipline, if you graze multi species cover crops repeatedly between cash crops using rotational grazing methods, and you rotate your cash crops every 3-4 years, your fertilizer bill heads toward zero. Plus, you end up with a grass fed animal that can be marketed.”
Roger Hammett of Birch Solutions: “Anaerobic Digestion? You get nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and other elements essential for healthy crops and food. You also generally get more available nitrogen than you would if you didn't treat by AD. You get heat, gas, electricity or any combination of the 3. And you can stabilize wastes that could previously have emitted ammonia and/or methane to atmosphere.... It also helps to sanitize the waste streams by overwhelming anaerobic bacterial action.. it's a winner all round.”
I am impressed with the quantity and quality of capital flowing into the space, with the high quality entrepreneurs investing their careers here, and with the creativity being applied to this massive opportunity. I predict that the AgTech industry will create more than one unicorn from startups that create fertilizer with processes that draw down greenhouse gasses. This will be an area in which savvy venture investors and entrepreneurs will do well and do good.
For Your Consideration:
The views in this newsletter belong solely to Paul Lightfoot (and not to BrightFarms or other organizations). This newsletter accepts no advertising. Learn more about this newsletter at https://paullightfoot.substack.com/about.