There’s plenty of press coverage and consumer awareness when it comes to genetically engineered food and crops and the environmental hazards of pesticides and animal drugs. But the fertilizer industry? Not so much, even though it’s the largest segment of corporate agribusiness ($175 billion in annual sales), and a major destructive force in polluting the environment, disrupting the climate and damaging public health.
Learning the facts about chemical fertilizers and the companies that produce them will give you yet another reason to boycott chemical/GMO/factory-farmed foods and choose organic and grassfed animal products instead. Organic standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs or animal drugs.
Here are eight underreported facts that raise disturbing environmental and regulatory questions about Monsanto’s evil twin, the chemical fertilizer industry.
1. Chemical Fertilizer Is the Largest Industry in Global Agribusiness
According to the ETC group, a watchdog organization that researches the socioeconomic and ecological impacts of industrial agriculture and GMOs, the world’s seven dominant pesticide, GM and seed companies (including Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta) represent a $93 billion market. The global energy-intensive chemical fertilizer industry is almost twice as large, at $175 billion.
Like most of the other multinational players in Big Food, the fertilizer industry has secretive, vertical or cartel-like qualities that obscure operations and make regulation difficult. Increasingly, seed and GMO companies, farm equipment producers, pesticide/herbicide makers and crop and soil data producers work in each others' interest seamlessly and behind the scenes, according to ETC.
As ETC points out, “With combined annual revenue of over $385 billion, these companies call the shots. Who will dominate the industrial food chain? And what does it mean for farmers, food sovereignty and climate chaos?”
Industrially mined phosphorus and potash, along with synthetic nitrogen, are major components of the fertilizer industry. Up to 85 percent of the world's known phosphate rock reserves are located in Morocco. About 70 percent of potash comes from former Soviet states and Canada.
2. Fracking Has Made the U.S. a Huge Nitrogen Fertilizer Producer
In recent years, U.S. production of nitrogen fertilizer has boomed thanks to the falling price of natural gas used in its production. The reason for the cheap gas is fracking—the process of extracting gas from rock formations by bombarding them with pressurized water spiked with toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, fracking releases large amounts of climate-disrupting methane and toxic chemical-laden fracking liquids which can permanently pollute underground aquifers.
That’s bad for the environment—but good for fertilizer companies. Thanks to low natural gas prices, after decades of importing nitrogen fertilizer from the Middle East, the number of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer plants is growing. The three leadingdomestic producers—Koch Industries, Orascom Construction Industries and CF Industries—are reaping the benefits.
Who’s driving demand for all this nitrogen fertilizer? Monsanto.
Between 2005 and 2010, U.S. growers of genetically engineered corn, largely for GMO animal feed and ethanol, increased their nitrogen fertilizer use by one billion pounds. New nitrogen fertilizer plants are being situated close to the corn and soybean growers to feed demand more efficiently. “It is a highly concentrated and oligopolistic-type industry,” says Glen Buckley, a fertilizer industry consultant who spent 30 years working at CF Industries, based in Deerfield, Ill.
3. Koch Industries Is a Fertilizer Leader
In 2010, Koch Industries was named “the world’s third-largest maker and marketer of nitrogen fertilizer,” according to the Wichita Eagle. Koch, along with Monsanto, is one of the most hated corporations in the U.S., infamous for its support of extreme right-wing politicians and climate deniers. The Wichita Eagle notes that Koch Industries is part of a large system “of buying, leasing, upgrading and expanding fertilizer manufacturing, trading and distribution facilities worldwide.” It controls over 65 terminals “where it wholesales nitrogen fertilizer to co-ops and grain elevators for sale to farmers, as well as selling to the chemical industry."
Not surprisingly, Koch’s fertilizer unit, called Koch Agronomics, has drawn the ire of environmentalists. Pollution is “strictly monitored and legally permitted by federal, state and local governments,” Steve Packebush, president of Koch Fertilizer and vice president for nitrogen for Koch Industries told the Eagle.
But how strict are those guidelines, really?
4. Chemical Fertilizer Enforcement Is Often Self-Monitoring
The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges the severe harm nitrogen fertilizer does to waterways, including to marine life and humans. Yet the agency’s “enforcement” of harmful excessive farm runoff sounds a lot like an honor system.
Asked how National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, which allow farming operations to discharge nitrogen, are enforced, the EPA says, “The permit will require the facility to sample its discharges and notify EPA and the state regulatory agency of these results. In addition, the permit will require the facility to notify EPA and the state regulatory agency when the facility determines it is not in compliance with the requirements of a permit. EPA and state regulatory agencies also will send inspectors to companies in order to determine if they are in compliance with the conditions imposed under their permits.”
Self-monitoring by private industry is of course a government trend across the board. In the late 1990s the government rolled out the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) program which took away the majority of those pesky federal meat inspectors’ duties and allowed Big Meat to self-police its own slaughterhouses. Sometimes U.S. meat inspectors were openly defied and laughed at.
HACCP was quickly dubbed Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray. Meat inspectorsidentified greater amounts of feces and contamination in meat soon after the program was instituted. Since then, self-policing by food producers has only been expanded.
5. Nitrogen Fertilizer Pollutes the Environment and Drinking Water
As most people know, nitrogen runoff from non-organic farms and feedlots into waterways causes hypoxic conditions—lack of oxygen—which regularly kill fish in shocking quantities.
Two-thirds of the U.S. drinking water supply is contaminated at high levels with carcinogenic nitrates or nitrites, almost all from excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Some public wells have nitrogen at such a high level it is dangerous and even deadly for children to drink the tap water.
Nitrogen fertilizer is also the greatest contributor to the infamous dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, the coasts of California and Oregon, and 400 other spots around the world. Since very little synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was used before 1950, all of the damage we see today occurred in the last 60 years.
Excessive nitrates in drinking water, common in the corn-growing areas of the U.S, are known to cause deadly "blue baby" syndrome in infants, and have been linked to cancer in adults. In combination with herbicide residues such as Syngenta’s atrazine, nitrates become even more toxic, potentially causing brain damage and hormone disruption.
In some rural areas, fertilizer pollution levels are 10 times beyond so-called “allowable levels,” although golf courses and homeowner fertilizer and pesticide use in urban areas also contribute to the problem. Last fall, the Des Moines Water Works sued three neighboring farming counties over their nitrate discharges but, reported the Associated Press, "the litigation has provoked intense criticism from Iowa's powerful agricultural industry, which argues that farmers are already taking voluntary measures to control them."
6. Nitrogen Fertilizers Harm Workers and Communities
Anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen compound compressed into a clear, colorless liquid for easy application, is extremely dangerous to workers and neighboring communities. It poses explosion and fire hazards as well as respiratory risks.
"It [Anhydrous ammonia] must be stored and handled under high pressure, requiring specially designed and well-maintained equipment," says the University of Minnesota's extension site. "In addition, to ensure their safety, workers must be adequately educated about the procedures and personal protective equipment required to safely handle this product."
In 2013, an ammonia nitrate explosion and fire at the West Fertilizer Company storage near Waco, Texas, killed 15 and injured 160, and caused 150 buildings to be razed. (At the time, Governor Rick Perry was in Chicago recruiting businesses to relocate in Texas, where safety regulations were more lax and would not cut into their profits.)
In 2006, railroads asked to be relieved of their common carrier obligation to haul fertilizer products like anhydrous ammonia or to be protected by a liability cap. Accidents like last year's in South Carolina, where people within a 1.5-mile radius of a derailed train carrying ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonium were evacuated, occur regularly.
Yet the Fertilizer Institute trade group says, “The historically high safety record of anhydrous ammonia transport by rail has been achieved over the years by the fertilizer industry, the railroads and tank car manufacturing and leasing companies working in a close cooperative effort.”
7. Chemical Fertilizers Destroy Soils’ Natural Ability to Sequester Excess Atmospheric CO2
According to GMO no-till advocates, adding nitrogen fertilizer to soil, is supposedly “climate friendly” because it allegedly helps crops draw CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil as organic carbon. But University of Illinois soil scientists disputed this view in "The Myth of Nitrogen Fertilization for Soil Carbon Sequestration," a research paper published in the Journal of Environmental Quality:
"…excessive [fertilizer] application rates cut profits and are bad for soils and the environment. The loss of soil carbon has many adverse consequences for productivity, one of which is to decrease water storage. There are also adverse implications for air and water quality, since carbon dioxide will be released into the air, while excessive nitrogen contributes to the nitrate pollution problem."
Not surprisingly, much of the organic carbon decline the researchers identified occurred in the fertilized soil found in corn belts.
The ETC group agrees with the University of Illinois researchers.
"There is growing recognition that synthetic fertilizers are a major contributor to climate-destroying greenhouse gases (GHG). The estimated cost of environmental damage from reactive nitrogen emissions is between $70 billion and $320 billion in the European Union alone."
8. Nitrous Oxide Emissions From Chemical Fertilizers Are a Major and Persistent Greenhouse Gas Pollutant
Nitrous oxide is responsible for approximate 5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Nitrous oxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth's nitrogen cycle, and has a variety of natural sources. However, human activities such as agriculture, fossil fuel combustion, wastewater management, and industrial processes are increasing the amount of N2O in the atmosphere.
The primary cause of N2O contamination of the atmosphere are the nitrogen fertilizers used in industrial (non-organic) agriculture.
Nitrous oxide molecules, in comparison to other greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane, stay in the atmosphere for a very long time, an average of 114 years. NO2 also has much more potent heat-trapping characteristics. The impact of one pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is 300 times that of one pound of carbon dioxide.
Although transportation, industry and energy producers are significant and well-recognized GHG polluters, few people understand that the worst U.S. greenhouse gas emitter is “Food Incorporated,” industrial food and farming. Industrial food and farming accounts for a huge portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. EPA’s ridiculously low estimates range from 7 percent to 12 percent, but some climate scientists believe the figure could be as high as 50 percent or more. Industrial food and farming also destroys the natural capacity of plants and soils to sequester atmospheric carbon.
Many climate scientists now admit that they have previously drastically underestimated the dangers of the non-CO2 GHGs, including nitrous oxide, which are responsible (along with methane) for at least 20 percent of global warming.
Nearly all nitrous oxide pollution comes from dumping billions of pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and sewage sludge on farmland (chemical fertilizers and sludge are banned on organic farms and ranches), mainly to grow animal feed or produce ethanol. Given that about 80 percent of U.S. agriculture is devoted to producing factory-farmed meat, dairy and animal feed, reducing agriculture GHGs means eliminating the over-production and over-consumption of factory-farmed meat and animal products.
The most climate-damaging greenhouse gas poison used by industrial farmers is synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Pesticide manufacture and use are also serious problems, which generate their own large share of GHGs during manufacture and use (more than 25 billion pounds per year). But about six times more chemical fertilizer is used than toxic pesticides on U.S. farms.
German chemical corporations developed the industrial processes for the two most widely used forms of synthetic nitrogen in the early 1900s. But until World War II, U.S. use of synthetic nitrogen as a fertilizer was limited to about 5 percent of the total nitrogen applied. Up until that time most nitrogen inputs came from animal manures, composts and fertilizer (cover) crops, just as it does on organic farms today.
During the Second World War, all of the European powers and the U.S. greatly expanded their facilities for producing nitrogen for bombs, ammunition and fertilizer for the war effort. Since then, both the use of nitrogen fertilizer and bomb-making capacity have soared. By the 1990s, more than 90 percent of nitrogen fertilizer used in the U.S. was synthetic.
According to the USDA, the average U.S. nitrogen fertilizer use per year from 1998 to 2007 was 24 billion 661 million pounds. To produce that nitrogen, the manufacturers released at least 6.7 pounds of GHG for every pound produced. That’s 165 billion, 228 million pounds of GHGs spewed into the atmosphere every year, just for the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Most of those emissions are nitrous oxide, the most damaging emissions of U.S. agriculture.
Regenerative Organic Farming and Ranching Can Drastically Reduce GHG Emissions
The currently catastrophic, but largely unrecognized greenhouse gas damage from chemical farms and industrial food production and distribution must be reversed. This will require wholesale changes in farming practices, government subsidies, food processing and handling. It will require the conversion of millions of chemical farms, feedlots and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) to organic production. It will require the establishment of millions of urban backyard and community gardens.
If we carried out a full environmental impact statement on industrial and factory farming synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use, we would never give these practices a permit for agricultural use. Ironically, although factory farming is responsible for more GHGs than any other U.S. industry, it will not be regulated under proposed EPA regulations designed to limit GHGs, unless citizens demand it. We must demand that methane pollution from factory farms and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer pollution on chemical farms be highly taxed and regulated in the short term, and phased out, as soon as possible. We must substitute cover crops, compost and compost tea, as currently used in organic farming and ranching.
In the meantime, consumers should boycott all foods and products emanating from Monsanto and its evil twin, the chemical fertilizer industry.