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Emissions from Farming Could Overwhelm Global Climate Goals

As the world’s farmers scramble to raise enough food to feed a growing global population, it turns out one source of emissions imposes its own huge threat.
By Leon Kaye

Plenty of global food companies say they are determined to work with their supply chains to reduce emissions. There’s also been no shortage of innovation within agriculture, whether it’s related to reducing emissions, finding new ways to raise livestock, developing more sustainable methods to grow crops, or using water more effectively on farms and orchards.

But according to a study recently published in the journal Nature, those efforts may be about as effective as arming oneself for a gunfight with a butter knife.

The challenge stems from the stubborn fact that the world’s farmers are scrambling to raise enough food to feed a growing global population. And despite all the challenges they face, from climate volatility to rigid distribution systems, the world’s agricultural systems for the most part are succeeding. From a big picture perspective, crop yields are increasing, and farmers are far more efficient at producing food than they were a couple of generations ago.

Where the problem lies is within one tactic farmers have harnessed to ensure they can still produce a steady amount of food: the use of artificial fertilizers. Ammonium nitrate is mostly known to the general public for its role in the deadly Beirut blast in August 20202, which killed at least 200 Lebanese citizens and leveled many of the city’s neighborhoods. But ammonium nitrate and other chemical fertilizers have become an integral part of the worldwide agricultural supply chain.

The culprit: Nitrous oxide, or N2O, is a byproduct of ammonium nitrate's use on farms. And the dozens of researchers who participated in this Nature study found that emissions of N2O into the atmosphere increased by an average of 1.4 percent between 1980 and 2016.

That 1.4 figure may seem small, but according to this study’s authors, it could pummel the 2 degrees Celsisus warming limit to which negotiators agreed in the 2015 Paris Accords. If left untouched, that same rate would make a precarious 3 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures easy pickings — a level many climate scientists say would result in “catastrophe.”

While N2O is also the same compound as “laughing gas,” to climate scientists, this is hardly a matter to giggle over. In any event, even if this gas could somehow be captured for reuse, there are few industrial applications to make such an effort worth the trouble.

Meanwhile, most of the focus to which food companies have committed when it comes to revamping their supply chains is reducing carbon emissions. But most estimates suggest N2O has a potency that is 265 to 300 times more intense than that of carbon emissions.

It’s a similar argument to what we’ve been hearing in recent years about the energy sector’s impacts on climate change: While climate targets have largely centered around carbon emissions, the far more potent greenhouse gas methane has proven to become a more intractable problem.

The solutions are not as far-off as many of us may think. Precision fertilizing and embracing new technologies such as artificial intelligence can assist farmers, and thereby food companies, in tackling the emerging threat of N2O. But as the Guardian reports, the only global region that’s making progress on halting N2O emissions is Europe — and that’s only due to requirements regulators have imposed on industries such as the textiles sector.

And the largest threat N2O presents is one many environmentalists thought was tackled 30-odd years ago: These emissions can take a toll on the world’s ozone layer.

As for the action the world’s leading global food companies could and should take, the short answer lies in this report’s conclusion: “Reducing excess nitrogen applications to croplands and adopting precision fertilizer application methods provide the greatest immediate opportunities for the abatement of N2O emissions.”


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Image credit: Patrick Fore/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye