Company believes more efficient production will avoid destroying forests for extra cropland, but other groups disagree
Fertilizer companies can do more good than bad when it comes to combatting greenhouse gases, according to Yara’s chief executive officer.
Svein Tore Holsether said agriculture is responsible for one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“On the one hand, that is a big challenge, but it is also a very big opportunity,” he told analysts during a webinar on the fertilizer manufacturer’s fourth quarter 2019 financial results.
That is because half of those emissions are due to converting the world’s forests into farmland.
“This means that efficient crop nutrition solutions have a major role to play in solving some of the planet’s biggest challenges,” said Holsether.
By making more efficient use of existing farmland some of those acres can be converted back into forest.
He noted that the average corn yield of 59 bushels per acre in Mexico pales in comparison to the average yield of 175 bushels per acre in the United States.
There are huge gains to be realized if some of the world’s least efficient farms are shifted toward the best-in-class yields by using the latest fertilizer products.
Holsether was in India recently where he met with a couple who grow 10 acres of potatoes. They have increased their yields by 15 percent using the right crop nutrition program.
“Now this is only one example, but if you multiply this with tens of millions of farmers, we’re talking incremental changes with a world-changing impact,” he said.
Brent Preston, president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, one of the lead groups in a coalition that recently launched Farmers for Climate Solutions, scoffs at the notion that the fertilizer industry has a major role to play in saving the planet.
“It is a well-established fact that the manufacture and use of fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizer, results in very large greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in an email.
“Many of our coalition members have used practices such as planting leguminous cover crops and improving soil health on their farms to substantially reduce or eliminate their need for synthetic fertilizers, while at the same time increasing their profitability. This is the path we need to take.”
Holsether noted that the Food and Land Use Coalition recently produced a lengthy report that concluded it is possible to reduce agriculture and pastureland by one-third and turn that land back to nature.
The group believes that goal could be achieved by eating healthier diets, reducing food loss and waste, producing food with greater resource efficiency and avoiding “perverse incentives” for land expansion such as biofuel mandates.
The fertilizer industry believes it can contribute to that objective through precision farming and by improving nutrient use efficiency. That will reduce the amount of farmland required to feed the world and allow for reforestation of large tracts of farmland.
“As (former U.S.) vice-president Al Gore once said, the best technology for carbon capture is already invented,” said Holsether.
“It’s called a tree and when you put several of them together, it’s called a forest.”
One analyst said the European Union clearly sees the fertilizer industry as a big emitter of carbon dioxide, not the saviour of the planet.
Holsether’s chart showed that the industry is responsible for two percent of global emissions.
While he acknowledged that the industry uses a lot of natural gas, it is working hard to reduce its environmental footprint. Yara has decreased emissions by 50 percent compared to 2004 levels and has targeted a further 10 percent reduction by 2025.
“Yes, there are emissions from producing fertilizer but the impact on more efficient agriculture means more land available for nature, so the net of this is positive,” said Holsether.
A recent report by the National Farmers Union had a different take on the fertilizer industry’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem.
“Roughly 28 percent of all Canadian agricultural emissions come from the manufacture and application of nitrogen and as we double and redouble its use, agricultural emissions rise,” stated the report.