What is wrong with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and why should we ban it?

David Attenborough did not mince words in his address to the United Nations this week.

“Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” he said. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

We’re running out of time before the planet is going to go to hell in a handbasket, taking us with it. That is unless we radically transform society. Like, now. Or preferably yesterday.

One part of society that urgently needs a fundamental and far-reaching transformation is agriculture. It makes up 49% of New Zealand’s emissions.

What do we do about it?

We need to be farming far fewer cows, that much is obvious to anyone who isn’t living in the the fantasy world of unproven methane vaccines. But reducing the herd won’t be enough.

There’s a hidden climate (and river) killer that drives the industrialisation of agriculture.

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. We have to ban it.

Synthetic nitrogen is one of the key industrial agricultural inputs. Pesticides, livestock feed, antibiotics, irrigation, are some of the others. These things are what drive the high input, high damage way of growing food.

Without the inputs, industrial agriculture does not work.

Luckily, the most fundamental input of all is synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. That means, when we get it banned, it will force the de-industrialisation of farming and pave the way for regenerative farming – the only way of farming that provides a glimmer of hope against climate breakdown.

What is synthetic nitrogen fertiliser?

It’s a product that is made in factories and then dumped onto farmland in vast quantities to make grass and other crops grow fast. It’s a bit like crack cocaine for plants, a departure from reality and, ultimately destructive.

It often comes in the form of ‘urea’ but it’s sold under lots of other names too.

There are really only two companies selling it in New Zealand – Ravensdown and Ballance. Together they sell 98% of all fertiliser used here.

In New Zealand, it has been the driving force behind the grossly bloated dairy herd.

Since 1990, dairy cow numbers have more than doubled. In the same period the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser increased seven-fold.

Dairying is by far and away the biggest user.

Basically its use increases cow numbers, which increases methane emissions from burps and nitrous oxide emissions from urine patches.

Dairying is NZ's biggest user of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser by far.
Dairying is NZ’s biggest user of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser by far.

But, it doesn’t stop there. Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is a real double whammy for the climate.

When applied, it directly causes nitrous oxide emissions. That’s the gas that is 289 times worse for the climate than CO2. And the most ozone depleting one to boot.

Direct nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser have increased 478% since 1990. I wish there was a decimal point somewhere in that figure but no, it really says – four hundred and seventy eight percent.

It gets worse. The reason it’s called “synthetic” is because in the 1900s a guy called Fritz Haber invented a chemical process which allows humans to steal inert nitrogen out of the atmosphere.

This process was originally, and still is, used to make the raw ingredient in bombs. It’s both the fuel for war and the fuel for the broken food system.

You’ll never guess the main ingredient in that process. It’s hydrocarbon gas, a fossil fuel. You know, the one they often use fracking to extract.

Luckily, we don’t need this truly gross, climate killing chemical to grow our food.

We don’t need it for farms to remain profitable either. Just ask Dairy NZ – they’ll agree. Or at least, their scientists will. They published a 10 year study that proved it.

And we definitely don’t need it to feed the world. All we need to do is work with the natural nitrogen cycle instead of against it.

The nitrogen cycle

The problem with weaning agriculture off synthetic nitrogen fertiliser isn’t physical. It’s political. Ravensdown and Ballance have a vested interest in selling it and they’re not going to go down without a fight.

But it’s a fight worth having, and one we have to win.

With enough of us taking action and putting pressure on the Government, we will change what we grow and how we grow it.

We’ll farm fewer cows and other livestock, and they’ll be part of seriously diversified farms that grow more than just milk.

We will undergo huge diversification into more plant-based foods. Regenerative farming will become the dominant model. Agriculture will stop being one of the biggest environmental problems and start being one of the biggest solutions.

It all starts with ending synthetic nitrogen fertiliser – which is also polluting our drinking water and threatening the health of our communities.

You can sign our petition here calling on the Government to lower the legal limit of nitrate in drinking water.

PETITION: Get nitrates out of our drinking water

Call on the Government to lower the limit for nitrates in drinking water to safe levels

Take Action

Read the briefing paper: The hidden killer: How synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is fuelling intensive dairying, polluting our rivers and climate