Starving Our Way to Sustainability?

Abolishing the periodic table.

That is what a friend of mine joked was happening in response to reports coming from the Netherlands this summer. Nitrogen has joined carbon on the list of “emissions non grata” of environmentalists and governments. While it is commendable for governments to seek to mitigate nitrogen emissions, the policies being implemented by some seem more reckless than beneficial.

The flinging Dutchmen
You may recall that in July, Dutch farmers took a leaf from the Canadian truckers’ book and hit the road en masse to protest their government’s draconian Nitrogen Policy, which is intended to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from the agricultural sector by 50% by 2030. Dutch farmers say this policy could dispossess a large proportion of them of their land, cattle, and livelihoods. As an added flourish of their protest, some farmers sprayed manure on legislative and other government buildings.

Cattle farmers in particular are targeted by the Nitrogen Policy. The Netherlands is the EU’s biggest meat exporter. The combination of urine and feces from cattle and pigs produces ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Ammonia is a pollutant that can leak into the environment and N2O is thought to contribute to climate change. The Dutch policy would see the number of cattle reduced, possibly by 25 or even 50%. The ambitious nitrogen target and its rapid implementation (only eight years away) would indeed force many farmers out of business – farmers who claim they are already striving to reduce farming emissions.

It’s been a summer of protests for Dutch farmers, who say they are being hit hard by their government’s nitrogen policy.
Image source: Farmers’ Protest, Independent Sentinel, 5 July 2022
Dutch policies guided by EU Habitat Directive of 1992
The history of the current Dutch policy goes back decades and originates with the European Union. In 1992, the European Commission adopted the Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC) intended to conserve natural habitat and wild fauna and flora. It led to the establishment of the Natura 2000 ecological network of protected areas. In 2019, the Dutch Council of State ruled that the Netherlands’ nitrogen program (with the acronym PAS), implemented in 2015, conflicted with the EU’s 1992 Habitats Directive and could no longer be used to grant permits. This resulted in many construction projects being put on hold, and some politicians suggesting that the number of livestock be cut in half, as the agricultural industry was responsible for 46% of nitrogen emissions.Not surprisingly, Dutch farmers didn’t agree. In October 2019, over two thousand of them drove their tractors in a slow procession to the capital, The Hague, creating traffic jams of over 1000 kilometers, the biggest in Dutch history. They were protesting not only proposed government policies but stereotypes that painted them as “animal abusers and environmental polluters.” And they had a point. The Netherlands is already highly efficient at “manure management” relative to other European countries (as shown in Figure 4 in this article). Although about one-third of the nitrogen pollution deposited in the Netherlands comes from other countries, its neighbours have so far not imposed such tough restrictions. It is possible, however, that EU courts will impose decisions similar to that of the Dutch Council of State in the future.Is Canada going Dutch on nitrogen?
Canada’s government would also like to reduce N2O emissions. Last year, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with fertilizers by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Like their Dutch counterparts, Canadian farmers already use fertilizer very efficiently. But it was only after Canadian farmers engaged in some slow-roll demonstrations across Canada on July 23rd in solidarity with protesting Dutch farmers that the government began consulting with “stakeholders” about its fertilizer emissions reduction plan.

As one farmer from Saskatchewan put it, “We’re trying to maximize output and we are just barely keeping up with what the world requires on an annual basis. It seems like the climate crisis is trumping the food crisis that we were discussing last decades, and just wondering which direction we’re going to be going next.”

The government of Canada assures its farmers that their targets will not be mandatory and that it is in consultation with industry experts. One can’t blame farmers for being a bit skeptical, however, especially after government agents were found trespassing on the land of several Saskatchewan farmers to take, without permission, water samples from the farmers’ dugouts. According to an agent taking the samples, they were to be tested for pesticide and nitrate levels. This led Jeremy Cockrill, the minister responsible for the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, to write an open letter to the federal environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, demanding an explanation. There were suggestions that the samples taken surreptitiously by government agents were intended to be used as baseline measurements to enforce future reductions in fertilizer use, something that Guilbeault denied.

Sri Lanka: storming the palace of bright environmental ideas
Fortunately, so far, the situation in the Netherlands has not escalated to the turbulence experienced by Sri Lanka this summer following last year’s hastily imposed nitrogen policies. In April of 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued an immediate ban on chemical fertilizer following a promise he had made during his election campaign two years earlier to transition the country to organic farming over ten years. The abrupt ban led to an implosion of the agricultural sector, a major pillar of the Sri Lankan economy. More than 80% of Sri Lanka’s population is rural, and over 70% of the rural population depends on agriculture. Prior to the ban, synthetic fertilizer had been heavily subsidized and had enabled Sri Lanka, despite its growing population, to become self-sufficient in rice and to export tea. Without synthetic fertilizer, crop yields dropped dramatically, between 20 and 70% depending on the crop, and small farmers in particular were devastated.

Sri Lankan farmers gathered to demand fertilizer aid from their government, which adopted a 100% organic farming policy in early 2021.
Photo: Lanka Express


In response to angry protests, soaring inflation, and the collapse of Sri Lanka’s currency, Rajapaksa suspended the fertilizer ban for certain key crops in November of 2021. However, this was too little, too late, to avert economic collapse and anarchy. Businesses and schools closed as the country ran out of fuel. Violent demonstrators stormed the official residence of the president and set fire to the residence of the prime minister. On July 9, President Rajapaksa fled his official residence in Colombo as protesters broke through police barricades and entered the premises. He officially resigned on July 14, having left the country the day before. After seven weeks of exile, Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka in early September, amid demands that he be held accountable for his actions as president. Perhaps Rajapaksa is still musing over how angry people get when you cut off their food supply.

Let them eat crickets?
The turmoil in the agriculture sector is playing out against a backdrop of hunger in many parts of the world. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) recently produced a report highlighting the precarious state of the global food situation. The report’s abstract declares that it “should dispel any lingering doubts that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms.” The FAO report says that the number of hungry globally rose to as many as 828 million in 2021, an increase of about 46 million since 2020 and 150 million since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The World Food Programme, the food assistance branch of the United Nations, is calling 2022 “a year of unprecedented hunger.” With rising needs and falling resources, it is seeking US$22.2 billion in funding. The current “seismic hunger crisis,” it says, is caused by a deadly combination of four factors: conflict, climate shocks, the Covid-19 pandemic, and rising costs.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number of people pushed into hunger increased by 150 million compared to before the pandemic.

Neither the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) nor the World Food Program mention the rapid population growth of recent decades in all regions experiencing food insecurity as a factor contributing to that insecurity, nor do they propose stemming population growth in those regions as part of the solution.

As it happens, the Netherlands is the world’s fourth largest dairy exporter and second largest overall food exporter, after the US. Canada is a major exporter of wheat, and also exports large amounts of canola, oats and other grains. The world food supply has also been shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even in rich countries such as Canada, many people are struggling with the huge bite that inflation is taking out of their pocketbooks and record numbers are using food banks. It is hard to see how policies that could very soon (Netherlands) or in the not so distant future (Canada and other exporting countries) put some of the world’s most efficient farmers out of business will not cause an enormous increase in hunger and human suffering.

Would it not make more sense to seek a gradual reduction in fertilizer use, along with concerted and sustained efforts to introduce ethical but effective family planning programs in the rapidly growing regions of  perpetual hunger?

Or do our leaders think that we will be able to make up for the shortfall in conventional food sources by eating crickets, which are being hailed as the “food of the future”? The company Aspire is building a commercial facility in London, Ontario, which is slated to be the world’s largest ever cricket farm.

Norwood, Ontario-based Entomo farms harvests 50 million crickets a week. Crickets contain more protein than beef and are being heralded as “the food of the future.”

World Economic Forum?
Some are linking the policies being pursued by the Netherlands, Canada, and Sri Lanka to the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset. The Netherlands is the host country of the Global Coordinating Secretariat of the WEF’s “Food Innovation Hubs” initiative created “to sustainably improve the way we produce and consume food, through an eco-systems approach” – something that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is very proud of.  While Time magazine dismisses those making such connections as “far-right figures and conspiracy theorists,” it must be acknowledged that  government policies are doing little to discourage such thinking.

Nitrogen, from hero to villain
It is the use of nitrogen-based fertilizer that has allowed the human population to balloon from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 8 billion in 2022. German chemist Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for developing a method to synthesize ammonia using nitrogen in the air and natural gas (methane). This made the manufacture of ammonia economically feasible. German industrial chemist Carl Bosch turned the Haber method into a large-scale process through the use of a catalyst and high pressure. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1931 (along with Friedrich Bergius) for work in high-pressure studies.
The boost to growing the human population with the help of essentially limitless ammonia fertilizer was put into overdrive by the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, launched by American agronomist Norman Borlaug, who bred dwarf varieties of wheat that were high-yield and drought-resistant. His work in wheat was followed by the breeding of semi-dwarf rice and hybrid maize. For his achievements, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The Green Revolution crop varieties require large amounts of water and fertilizer. Unfortunately, only about half of the nitrogen in the fertilizer is taken up by crop plants, the rest volatilizes as ammonia and nitrous oxide or leaches into the groundwater.
Which brings us back to all those farmers who are now being taken to task for agriculture’s role in nitrogen pollution as they strive to feed eight billion of us. Of course, the amount of fertilizer used to grow crops and the number of cattle raised by farmers would be a lot less if there were fewer of us to feed, but this is not mentioned in polite society.

Is Malthus saying, “I told you so”?
Malthus is often depicted as a villain, but in fact he should be honoured as a prophet and clear thinker. He made some observations for which he is reviled (and which today would no doubt get him cancelled on Twitter). Specifically, he postulated that humans will never eliminate poverty because every time their food supply increases, their population also increases. In 1798, when Malthus published the first edition of his Principle of Population, the entire world population was approximately 800 million. The Food and Agricultural Organization tells us, in 2022, that there are over 800 million hungry people among the eight billion of us. I can almost hear Malthus saying, “I rest my case.”
It seems inevitable that unless we stop and then reverse human population growth, we are headed for a Malthusian future – one where population growth has outstripped food production and it is left to the four horsemen of the apocalypse to restore the balance.  Modern mechanized food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, which are close to or have passed their peak production. A rational human species that lived up to its scientific name Homo sapiens would strive to reduce its numbers through universal small family size in conjunction with maintaining adequate food production as the population shrinks generation by generation.

Farmers get enough from their cattle, don’t want more from their politicians
Such rational policies are not being promoted at home or internationally. International organizations sidestep the issue of population growth even as they struggle to contend with its consequences. The Canadian government’s policy of growing its population by almost half a million annually means that a not insignificant amount of the land that its nitrogen policies are designed to protect will fall to development. You think nitrogen is bad? Just wait till you see what a bulldozer can do!
Dealing with manure may come with the job, but farmers around the world are demonstrating that they don’t want to receive any more from their governments.

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: [email protected]
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