By David Yager
March 16, 2021
Aggressive climate crusaders advocating for the immediate replacement of fossil fuels rarely tell this part of the story.
That fossil fuels are the primary reason why 7.8 billion people can live longer and better in the 21st century. Fewer suffer from malnutrition and starvation every year, a trend that has been improving for decades. Even though the population has grown steadily, in the past thirty years the total number defined as “undernourished” continues to decline.
We are reminded repeatedly that airborne emissions from coal, oil and natural gas combustion and industrial applications pollute the atmosphere, impair our health and kill people.
But the benefits of fossil fuels are invariably ignored. Incredible improvements in crop yields on a per hectare basis in the past century have done the exact opposite; created, sustained and prolonged many more lives than carbon emissions and pollution have claimed.
The key ingredient is low cost and plentiful nitrogen-based fertilizer originally made from coal and later natural gas. A 2019 CBC article titled “How fertilizer made from Alberta natural gas helps feed the planet” tells the story. In 1909 German chemist Fritz Haber invented a process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Using fossil fuels under high pressure, Haber created ammonium nitrate, a combination of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen which helped plants grow. Haber would later be awarded the Nobel prize for his efforts.
Energy historian Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba told the CBC, “This was perhaps the most important invention in human history, in the sense that you have something like three or four billion people are alive today who wouldn’t be otherwise.”
Originally the process used coal but later switched to natural gas. With gas from the Turner Valley and Bow Island discoveries plumbed into Calgary early last century, Alberta’s first venture into petrochemicals was in 1941 when a plant was opened to produce ammonia and ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate also has applications for military explosives, so this was also part of the war effort.
This was not only a first for Alberta’s petrochemical industry, but the first fertilizer plant in North America to use natural gas as feedstock. By 1943 the facility was producing ammonium nitrate fertilizer in pellet form. This business still operates from Calgary under the company name Nutrien (It started as Consolidated Mining and Smelting in Trail, then changed to Cominco Fertilizer, then Agrium, then Nutrien).
This product using this process is now produced all over the world. Thanks to fossil fuel natural gas.
According to research done by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), by the 21st century over half the fertilizer in the world was nitrogen based and manufactured from gas. Potash, which is understood in Canada because it is mined in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, provides about 15%. Phosphate fertilizers account for about 20%. It is made using an acidization process to treat phosphate rock created in old ocean beds and mined for fertilizer production.
It is well accepted in academic writing on the subject of fossil fuels and food that the impact of nitrogen- based fertilizer in feeding the world is significant. Research by several parties including Vaclav Smil indicate so-called “synthetic” fertilizer helps supply food to nearly half of mankind.
What has happened by adding science to agriculture in the last century was called a “green revolution”, the miraculous increase in agricultural productivity with which the growing population figured out how to feed itself. Fossil fuels were the key at every stage. Besides the fertilizer itself which made the soil more productive, other advancements included pesticides, improved farm equipment, irrigation, refrigerated food storage (electricity 24/7/365 often from coal or natural gas), and the increasingly efficient global land, sea and air transportation infrastructure.
One study revealed that in the US, food is transported an average of 2,400 km. from its source to the dinner table. In Canada, the distance is 8,000 km. when fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter are included. The food in Canadian grocery stores comes from all over the world.
This image illustrates the miraculous increase in crop yields since 1961. Staples like wheat and corn have more than doubled. Everything on the chart is up at least 50%. What the combination of fossil fuels and agricultural science have accomplished is feeding more people than ever without continued deforestation to create more farmland.
In researching this article, I put various combinations of “food” and “fossil fuels” into Google. Not much of what appeared was current. But there was a lot written from the period 2008 to 2014 when high fossil fuel prices started to drive up food prices globally. Future oil and gas supplies were thought to be limited.
Remember, oil peaked at US$147 a barrel in mid-2008. While it fell briefly in 2008/09 because of the world financial crisis, oil prices and natural gas prices (often priced on a BTU equivalent basis until the US shale gas boom) stayed high until late 2014. The idea that the world will actually run out of oil and gas anytime soon has not been mentioned recently.
Food costs and shortages were exacerbated by the development of “biofuels”, ethanol made from plants. A US policy of 2005 diverted corn from food to ethanol to augment gasoline. Biofuels are popular with environmentalists as a suitable substitute for fossil fuels.
But by 2009, one-quarter of the US corn crop was being burned in cars and trucks. Manufacturing ethanol for transportation fuel out of things the world used to eat, burn or process (sugar cane was a big input, as was palm oil) resulted in crop diversion globally. And deforestation. The US was the world’s largest producer and exporter of corn. A 2008 Reuters headlines blared, “Biofuels Major Driver of Food Price Rise: World Bank”.
By 2011 the UN’s FAO was very concerned and released a paper titled “Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate”. The FAO wrote, “The global community is becoming increasing concerned about the high dependence of the global food sector on fossil fuels. This anxiety is complicated by FAO projections indicating that by 2050 a 70 percent increase in current food production will be necessary to meet the expanding demand for food, primarily through yield increases. The use of fossil fuels by agriculture has made a significant contribution to feeding the world over the last few decades. Energy from fossil fuels has increased farm mechanization, boosted fertilizer production and improved food processing and transportation. However, if an inexpensive supply of fossil fuels becomes unavailable in the future, options for increasing food productivity may become severely limited.” (italics added by your writer)
Writing about the same subject at the same time in a book titled Eaarth (he intentionally spelled it wrong because the Earth that got us this far was disappearing), famous environmentalist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben weighed in on fossil fuels and food. He also assumed fossil fuels were in irreversible decline and alternative energy sources and lifestyles were essential. Citing statistics about declining soil fertility McKibben wrote, “Only fossil fuel in the form of synthetic fertilizer keeps it…functioning. But it’s that artificial fertility that has allowed populations to keep growing.” He quotes research showing that one-quarter to one-third of the world is “now alive” thanks to natural gas/ammonia fertilizer.
McKibben wrote it was time to go back to the land. He recalled how the Chinese fertilized the soil using their own excrement. Or that farmers were re-learning that, “…it’s possible to produce lots of food in relatively small farms with little or nothing in the way of synthetic fertilizer or chemicals.” McKibben also noted that organic farms required twice as much labor as conventional farming, which was good for the world’s simpler future. After, one assumes, industrial jobs disappear.
In my book From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, A Carbon Story, I wondered to what degree McKibben’s back-to-the-basics solution to climate change was transferable to the world’s growing urban population. I wrote, “…but his vision of the future seems difficult to export to where the people increasingly live, in megacities like Tokyo (38 million), Delhi (26 million), Shanghai (24 million), Sao Paulo (21 million), Mumbai (21 million), Mexico City (21 million), Beijing (20 million), Osaka (20 million), Cairo (19 million) and Dhaka (18 million). These 10 cities alone have a combined population of 228 million, 70% of the US population of 327 million.”
But we’re no longer allowed to publicly criticize or even question the motives of the climate concerned be it environmental advocacy groups, ostensibly deeply concerned politicians or even the growing ESG investment movement. The 2021 oil and gas industry has all but abandoned fighting back with facts and figures. Like the contents of this article.
It is much easier to repeat “net zero 2050” than demand a fact-based discussion on the true importance of fossils fuels in the world of today or the future.
That said, I will screw up my courage and suggest that none of the critics of fossil fuels, proponents for renewable energy, ESG investment fund managers or politicians publicly pledging to protect their flock missed a meal yesterday. Or will not secure sufficient calories to stay healthy tomorrow. Or next week. Or ever.
The world remains a huge, unfair and largely impoverished place. It is obvious that disposable income and diet are intrinsically linked. If you have money, you can buy whatever you need. If you’re poor, you may also be undernourished.
Our World in Data defines poverty this way. “Someone who lives on less than US$1.90 per day is defined as extremely poor, a person who lives on less than US$30 a day could be considered moderately poor.” Using this definition, 85% of the world or 6.5 billion people are moderately poor because they live on US$30 a day or less. Ten percent of the population, or about 780 million people, fall under the UN definition of “extreme poverty”. That’s over 20 times the population of Canada.
Another view is that only 15% of the world (top right corner) “live large” by this measurement. Very few in South Asia fall into this category. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is almost zero.
US$30 a day is about C$40 or $1,200 per month. Free and clear cash and available to spend as required. Canadian definitions of poverty tend to focus on purchasing power, a basket of essential goods that include food. Depending on the year and locations, about 12% of Canadians are considered poor.
Now that you know how we got this far and the challenges of continuing to feed the world, what are we doing about it?
Nothing. That failing to provide sufficient quantities of affordable food might be an “unintended consequence” of decarbonization is never mentioned.
The Canada Food Guide advises us we would all be healthier if we ate more fruits and vegetables in the winter. Cost is not mentioned.
Late last year the federal department of Paris 2030 compliance introduced the Clean Fuel Standard and a carbon tax scheduled to rise to $170 a tonne in the next nine years. The entire agricultural sector is already pleading for mercy for sufficient financial relief to stay in business as its input costs rise at every turn.
Everybody else is occupied by lockdowns or securing a COVID vaccinations, at least for now. But wait until 8,000 km. of carbon taxes are priced into your winter supplies of imported fruits and vegetables.
The key ingredient for the world’s cheapest fertilizer is natural gas. What are we doing about that?
Everything possible to increase the cost and ideally eliminate its production. This includes banning hydraulic fracturing, blocking pipelines, and discouraging continued development by insisting electricity should only come from renewables. Lower gas sales volumes reduce the incentive to invest in new supplies, essential to keeping gas cheap to continue to create low-cost fertilizer.
The ESG movement is using capital markets to restrict cash for the producers of fossil fuels. Either cut your emissions or do something else.
How noble. This is already causing the prices of oil and natural gas to rise. With some extra cash in the bank, producers normally would be drilling to replace reserves. This would keep fossil prices down, what we’ve been told by the UN FAO is critical to an affordable food supply.
But E&P companies that announce increased capital programs risk seeing see their share prices punished.
A decade ago there was a clear and direct link between rising oil prices and world hunger. This is underway yet again, either through higher commodity prices, carbon taxes or both. How many investment bankers will be missing meals when the full cycle impact of their behavior comes to fruition?
What about the third world? The poor and starving billions?
What? Who are they? What’s that noise?
The entire climate debate appears to assume the 6.5 billion people living outside of OECD countries don’t exist. North America and Europe are on this mission to save the planet through economic self-immolation and behavior modification. But as we shut down coal plants, Asia and Africa build more for electricity generation.
Every virtue-signalling reduction in emissions in OECD countries has been more than replaced by the rest of the planet.
And what are these 6.5 billion people trying to do?
Eat. The mindless brutes.
The old saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
Maybe this is the way to precipitate a more balanced discussion about the future of fossil fuels.
David Yager is an oil service executive, energy policy analyst, oil writer and author of From Miracle to Menace – Alberta, A Carbon Story. More at www.miracletomenace.ca