A field of wheat
Policy Analysis

Why we must rethink the use of nitrogen fertilizers

By Facundo Calvo on March 24, 2022

The war in Ukraine has profound implications not only for the security map of Europe, but also for global food security given the significant role Russia and Ukraine play in the world food supply. As policy-makers weigh how to respond to the war and the related humanitarian crisis, a crucial consideration is how they can prevent a burgeoning hunger crisis from spiraling out of control and what changes countries need to make in food production as a result.

Russia and Ukraine together play an influential important role in our global food system. They are among the leading world exporters of crucial cereals and oilseeds, such as wheat and barley, and UN data shows that they account for 12% of overall calories traded.

Even before the war began, hunger was rising globally at alarming levels. The latest figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show that world hunger, virtually unchanged over the last 5 years, has increased under the COVID-19 pandemic. The share of the global population not getting sufficient nourishment increased from 8.4% to 9.9% in 1 year, threatening the achievement of the Zero Hunger target by 2030 that is enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2.

The Natural Gas Debate and What It Means for Food Security

The Russia-Ukraine war has also put front and centre our long-standing reliance on natural gas, which is problematic from a climate change perspective and forces us to reconsider how fertilizers are produced. This is a point that often gets overlooked in the debate: with food prices on the rise, food shortages on the horizon, and natural gas likely to become an increasingly scarce resource, it is imperative to find new types of fertilizers that do not require natural gas.

The war has also put front and centre our reliance on natural gas, which is problematic from a climate change perspective and forces us to reconsider how fertilizers are produced.

Nitrogen fertilizers use natural gas as a key input. An increase in the price of natural gas and potash, another important input for fertilizers produced in Russia, will lead to higher fertilizer prices, and in turn, higher food prices, which would be detrimental to global food security. This could be exacerbated by Russia’s role as one of the major global exporters of both nitrogen fertilizers and potash. Higher food prices and lower crop yields are two likely scenarios under higher prices of nitrogen fertilizers.

How governments would react to increased prices of nitrogen fertilizers remains an open question. However, some governments might be tempted to increase their support to farmers to facilitate the purchase of nitrogen fertilizers. While this support can be useful to ensure fertilizers affordability, it may harm the environment – the key lies in its design. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, payments based on unconstrained variable input use, such as fertilizers and pesticides, are one of the most environmentally harmful forms of support given to farmers. This is because they reduce the cost of these inputs and create strong incentives for farmers to use fertilizers and pesticides more extensively.

There is, however, a more sustainable alternative: rethinking the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture at all and instead finding more environmentally friendly versions.

Why Are Nitrogen Fertilizers a Problem?

Our soils have limited quantities of "reduced" or "fixed" forms of nitrogen, which are not sufficient for providing crops with all the nitrogen they need, especially when accounting for the amount of food required to feed the world population. For more than a century, farmers around the world have relied on synthetic fertilizers to make up that nitrogen gap. Currently, a significant part of the food that we produce and consume depends on the use of synthetic fertilizers, and we now rely on them for feeding a growing world population of nearly 8 billion people. 

However, these synthetic fertilizers are environmentally harmful. The overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture leads to higher emissions of nitrous oxide, a gas that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Synthetic nitrogen has also caused water pollution at both surface and ground levels. These fertilizers also lead to algae forming on the surface of our water resources, leading to decreased levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, killing fish and other aquatic organisms. 

Feeding a fast-growing world population in a sustainable way presents enormous challenges to the existing alternatives to synthetic fertilizers.

Feeding a fast-growing world population in a sustainable way presents enormous challenges to the existing alternatives to synthetic fertilizers. When it comes to nitrogen fertilizers the challenge is even greater. Any disruption resulting from the military conflict in Eastern Europe can quickly translate into even higher prices of nitrogen fertilizers and, eventually, food. Incentives for governments to keep food prices at reasonable levels are high. In this context, thinking beyond nitrogen fertilizers is a must.

What Can Governments Do?

Governments face a difficult choice when it comes to the use of nitrogen fertilizersand of synthetic fertilizers in a broader sense. Long-standing reliance on nitrogen fertilizers such as urea makes farming and food production almost unthinkable without the addition of “reduced” forms of nitrogen to our crops. 

Keeping the prices of nitrogen fertilizers affordable for farmers, and thereby keeping food prices down, drains public resources that could be used for other purposes. This is even more challenging for the tightened budgets of some West and Central African countries, where reliance on imported nitrogen fertilizers from Russia can reach up to 90%.

Even if in the short term governments have a limited range of options, there are potential avenues they can consider to address the soaring prices of nitrogen fertilizers and key fertilizer inputs, such as potash, while securing sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for everyone.

First, governments can start by promoting more responsible and efficient uses for nitrogen fertilizers. In this regard, they might consider promoting the principles enshrined in the International Code of Conduct for the Sustainable Use and Management of Fertilizers. This Fertilizer Code was designed to support the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Sustainable Soil Management produced by the Global Soil Partnership to promote practices to reduce the overuse and misuse of fertilizers. The Fertilizer Code includes recommendations for government regulations related to the sale, distribution, and labelling of fertilizer products. 

Second, governments can promote greater use of organic fertilizers such as manure, compost, peat, seaweed, or guano, where conditions permit. These fertilizers do have their limitations: they are often more expensive, slower in releasing nutrients, often limited to moist and warmer soils, and insufficient to meet the food demands of a growing world population. Yet they can still offer an additional tool to improve soil structure in an environmentally friendly way until there are more effective solutions available.

These options, while useful in the short term, do not offer a satisfactory alternative to our long-standing reliance on nitrogen fertilizers, especially when considering current projections of population growth through 2050. What other options do governments have to reduce reliance on nitrogen fertilizers in the medium to long term?

Research and Development of Sustainable Fertilizers

There are promising scientific developments underway for alternative fertilizers, but many of these approaches need further development. For example, scientists are working to perfect a process known as “biological nitrogen fixation,” where legumes such as peas, beans, or lentils, by using a particular type of soil bacteria called rhizobia, “reduce” or “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that crops can use as a fertilizer. If further developed, scientific experts say this could be a viable alternative to nitrogen fertilizers that rely on natural gas.

However, research and development on fertilizers based on biological nitrogen fixation are still at a very early stage. Beyond a subset of legumes, more research is needed to understand how transformed cereals crops such as rice, wheat, or corn can form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to get the nitrogen they need.

Government support that currently goes to chemical fertilizers could instead support further research and development of alternative fertilizers.

Government support that currently goes to chemical fertilizers could go instead to supporting further research and development of alternative fertilizers, including this one. Not only would repurposing farm subsidies in this way help the environment by reducing nitrogen pollution and supporting cleaner marine and freshwater ecosystems, but it would help secure greater crop yields for farmers, with related benefits for global food security. This government support for research and development to fertilizer alternatives could also be matched by private investment. 

Under any scenario, both public and private efforts would be essential for rethinking the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture to ensure sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for everyone with minimal environmental harm. As the current crisis has reminded us, we need to start making changes now both to address our current hunger and food security challenges while also ensuring we are better able to withstand other shocks in the future.