The Politics of Fertilizer and the Exxons of Agriculture


The fertilizer industry is booming around the world. Nitrogen fertilizers, such as anhydrous ammonia, are made by processing natural gas with heated chemicals and therefore have prices that tend to move with natural gas. According to, the average fertilizer company's profits have surged 22.4 percent annually in recent years—giving them similar growth rates to big tech stocks such as Google and Apple.

It goes with­out say­ing that oil and coal com­pa­nies should not have a seat at the pol­i­cy table for deci­sions on cli­mate change. Their prof­its depend on busi­ness-as-usu­al and they’ll do every­thing in their pow­er to under­mine mean­ing­ful action.

But what about fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies? They are essen­tial­ly the oil com­pa­nies of the food world: the prod­ucts they get farm­ers to pump into the soil are the largest source of green-house gas emis­sions from farm­ing. Fer­til­iz­ers, too, have their for­tunes wrapped in agribusi­ness-as-usu­al and the expand­ed devel­op­ment of cheap sources of ener­gy such as fracked shale gas.

Exxon and BP must envy the ease their fer­til­iz­er coun­ter­parts have had in infil­trat­ing the cli­mate change pol­i­cy are­na. When world lead­ers con­vened for the 21st Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties (COP21) in Paris in Decem­ber, only one major inter­gov­ern­men­tal ini­tia­tive emerged to deal with cli­mate change and agri­cul­ture — and it was con­trolled by the world’s largest fer­til­iz­er companies.

The Glob­al Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture, launched at the 2014 Unit­ed Nations (UN) Sum­mit on Cli­mate Change in New York, was the cul­mi­na­tion of sev­er­al years of efforts by the fer­til­iz­er lob­by to block mean­ing­ful action on agri­cul­ture and cli­mate change. The Alliance’s 29 non-gov­ern­men­tal found­ing mem­bers includ­ed three fer­til­iz­er indus­try lob­by groups, two of the world’s largest fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies (Yara of Nor­way and Mosa­ic of the Unit­ed States), and a hand­ful of orga­ni­za­tions work­ing direct­ly with fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies on cli­mate change pro­grams. Today, 60 per­cent of the pri­vate sec­tor mem­bers of the Alliance still come from the fer­til­iz­er industry.

Cor­po­rate smart agriculture

One pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for the fer­til­iz­er indus­try’s suc­cess­ful pol­i­cy coup is that its role in cli­mate change is poor­ly under­stood and severe­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. Peo­ple asso­ciate Shell, not Yara, with frack­ing. But in Europe, it is Yara that coor­di­nates the cor­po­rate lob­by for shale gas devel­op­ment, and it is Yara and oth­er fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies that suck up most of the nat­ur­al gas pro­duced by the frack­ing boom in the Unit­ed States

Fer­til­iz­ers, espe­cial­ly nitro­gen fer­til­iz­ers, require an enor­mous amount of ener­gy to pro­duce. Esti­mates are that fer­til­iz­er pro­duc­tion accounts for one to two per­cent of total glob­al ener­gy con­sump­tion and pro­duces about the same share of glob­al green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions. This pro­duc­tion gets big­ger every year. Sup­plies of nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er, which is pro­duced almost entire­ly from nat­ur­al gas, are expect­ed to grow near­ly 4 per­cent per year over the next decade. And this pro­duc­tion will increas­ing­ly rely on nat­ur­al gas from fracked wells, which leak 40 to 60 per­cent more methane than con­ven­tion­al nat­ur­al gas wells. (Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a green­house gas.)

Pro­duc­tion, how­ev­er, accounts for only a small frac­tion of the GHG emis­sions gen­er­at­ed by chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers. Most emis­sions occur once they are applied to the soil.

The Inter­na­tion­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) esti­mates that for every 100 kg of nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er applied to the soil, one kg ends up in the atmos­phere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 as a green­house gas and is the world’s most sig­nif­i­cant ozone-deplet­ing sub­stance. In 2014, this was equiv­a­lent to the aver­age annu­al emis­sions of 72 mil­lion cars dri­ven in the US — about a third of the U.S. fleet of cars and trucks.

New research, how­ev­er, shows that these alarm­ing num­bers are at least three to five times too low. The use of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers this year will like­ly gen­er­ate more GHG emis­sions than the total emis­sions from all of the cars and trucks dri­ven in the Unit­ed States.

The fer­til­iz­er indus­try has long known that their chem­i­cals are cook­ing the plan­et and a grow­ing body of evi­dence shows that their prod­ucts are not need­ed to feed the world. Farm­ers can stop using chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers with­out reduc­ing yields by adopt­ing agroe­co­log­i­cal prac­tices. This was the con­clu­sion sup­port­ed by the 2008 Inter­na­tion­al Assess­ment of Agri­cul­tur­al Knowl­edge, Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy for Devel­op­ment (IAASTD) — a three-year inter­gov­ern­men­tal process involv­ing over 400 sci­en­tists that was spon­sored by the World Bank and all of the rel­e­vant UN agencies.

Faced with this dilem­ma, the fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies have moved aggres­sive­ly to con­trol the inter­na­tion­al debate on agri­cul­ture and cli­mate change, and to posi­tion them­selves as a nec­es­sary part of the solution.

(Image: Pawel Kuczyn­s­ki)

Fronting for fertilizers

There have been sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions advo­cat­ing at the inter­na­tion­al lev­el for sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture to be inter­pret­ed as syn­ony­mous with agro-ecol­o­gy. How­ev­er, agro-ecol­o­gy has unfor­tu­nate­ly come to rep­re­sent prin­ci­ples which reject the use of farm­ing inputs. There­fore, ini­tia­tives such as the Glob­al Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture are impor­tant to ensure the UN sys­tem adopts deci­sions that are reflec­tive of mod­ern agri­cul­ture.” —Cana­di­an Fed­er­a­tion of Agriculture

The glob­al fer­til­iz­er indus­try is dom­i­nat­ed by a hand­ful of cor­po­ra­tions. Yara, which is over 40 per­cent owned by the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment and its state pen­sion fund, dom­i­nates the glob­al mar­ket for nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er, while US-based Mosa­ic and a few com­pa­nies in Cana­da, Israel and the for­mer Sovi­et Union oper­ate car­tels that con­trol the glob­al potash sup­ply. Mosa­ic is also the lead­ing pro­duc­er of phosphates. 

These com­pa­nies are col­lec­tive­ly rep­re­sent­ed by a num­ber of lob­by groups. The main ones at the glob­al lev­el are The Fer­til­iz­er Insti­tute, the Inter­na­tion­al Fer­til­iz­er Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion and the Inter­na­tion­al Plant Nutri­tion Insti­tute. Fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies are also rep­re­sent­ed by ener­gy con­sumer lob­by groups such as the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Indus­tri­al Ener­gy Con­sumers. Yara chairs its Gas Work­ing Par­ty, which, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Fer­til­iz­ers Europe, is lob­by­ing heav­i­ly for shale gas devel­op­ment in the Euro­pean Union (EU).

The fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies and their front groups play an active role in var­i­ous alliances that they have formed with oth­er cor­po­ra­tions from the food and agri­cul­ture sec­tors to define and pro­tect their col­lec­tive inter­ests on poli­cies relat­ed to the envi­ron­ment and cli­mate change.

In North Amer­i­ca, for instance, Yara and oth­er fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies and lob­by groups co-found­ed the Alliance for Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture (“Field To Mar­ket”) along­side oth­er major food and agribusi­ness com­pa­nies like Wal­mart, Kel­log­g’s and Mon­san­to. Also active in this alliance are big U.S. envi­ron­men­tal non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs) such as the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund (EDF) and the The Nature Con­ser­van­cy (TNC). These NGOs work direct­ly with Yara, Mosa­ic and oth­er fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies on cli­mate smart” fer­til­iz­er effi­cien­cy pro­grams that Wal­mart, Pep­si­Co, Camp­bel­l’s and oth­er major food com­pa­nies and retail­ers are using as a basis for their inter­nal GHG emis­sions reduc­tion plans

The same NGOs and fer­til­iz­er front groups are behind Solu­tions From the Land, a U.S. alliance of agribusi­ness cor­po­ra­tions and cor­po­rate farm­ers estab­lished to defend indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture from envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. Ini­tial­ly Solu­tions From the Land worked to pro­tect indus­try from reg­u­la­tion of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­er run-off, which fouls pub­lic water resources, and is now focus­ing on cli­mate change.

We’re scared to death we’ll get hijacked by some groups that oppose tech­nol­o­gy,” explains Solu­tion from the Land’s Fred Yoder, speak­ing in Abu Dhabi in March 2015 at an agribusi­ness forum on cli­mate change.

In ear­ly 2015, Solu­tions from the Land changed its name to the North Amer­i­can Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture and now acts as the region­al coor­di­na­tion for the Glob­al Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agriculture.

This cozy rela­tion­ship between the fer­til­iz­er indus­try and oth­er multi­na­tion­als of the food and agribusi­ness sec­tor reach­es beyond the Unit­ed States and EU. Yara is par­tic­u­lar­ly active with­in the World Eco­nom­ic Forum (WEF) where it co-chairs the devel­op­ment of its New Vision for Agri­cul­ture with Wal­mart. Yara also chairs the WEF’s Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture work­ing group, through which it coor­di­nates the imple­men­ta­tion of cli­mate smart” fer­til­iz­er pro­grams with Nestlé, Pep­si­Co, Syn­gen­ta and oth­er com­pa­nies in Asia and Africa.

Joer­gen Olé Haslestad, Chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of Yara Inter­na­tion­al ASA, the world’s largest pro­duc­er of nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er and mem­ber of the steer­ing com­mit­tee of the Glob­al Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture. (Pho­to: Hei­di Wideroe / Bloomberg) 

Fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies also have a long-stand­ing rela­tion­ship with the inter­na­tion­al research cen­ters of the Con­sul­ta­tive Group for Inter­na­tion­al Agri­cul­tur­al Research (CGIAR). Today, the fer­til­iz­er indus­try col­lab­o­rates with these cen­ters on var­i­ous cli­mate smart ini­tia­tives in the South. The rela­tion­ship extends to the Bill Gates-fund­ed Alliance for a Green Rev­o­lu­tion in Africa (AGRA), which has sev­er­al areas of coop­er­a­tion with the CGIAR and the fer­til­iz­er indus­try, such as the African Green Rev­o­lu­tion Forum that was estab­lished by Yara and AGRA in 2010.

The main vehi­cle for the pro­mo­tion of fer­til­iz­ers in the Glob­al South, how­ev­er, is the Inter­na­tion­al Fer­til­iz­er Devel­op­ment Cen­ter (IFDC), which was estab­lished in the Unit­ed States in the 1970s and is fund­ed by sev­er­al fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies, includ­ing Yara. IFDC lob­bies gov­ern­ments for poli­cies that increase fer­til­iz­er use and pro­motes dif­fer­ent fer­til­iz­er appli­ca­tion tech­niques, such as inte­grat­ed soil man­age­ment that AGRA, the World Bank and oth­er fund­ing agen­cies have embraced as cli­mate smart”.

All of these var­i­ous cor­po­ra­tions, agen­cies, front groups and alliances have con­verged behind a com­mon effort to pro­mote cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture” as the offi­cial response to cli­mate change. It builds upon pre­vi­ous, equal­ly abstract terms pro­mot­ed by the fer­til­iz­er indus­try to cast chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers as part of the solu­tion to cli­mate change, such as cli­mate com­pat­i­ble agri­cul­tur­al growth” and sus­tain­able intensification”.

I believe 2015 and 2016 will be the years where we move from build­ing a glob­al move­ment to action on the ground. And the key words are cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture, an area where Yara has prod­ucts and knowl­edge,” says Sean de Cleene, Yara’s vice pres­i­dent of Glob­al Ini­tia­tives, Strat­e­gy and Busi­ness Development.

The UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion (FAO) first coined the term cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture” in 2010 as a means to attract cli­mate finance to its agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams in Africa. The term only became sig­nif­i­cant in inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy cir­cles in 2012 after the Sec­ond Glob­al Con­fer­ence on Agri­cul­ture, Food Secu­ri­ty and Cli­mate Change, orga­nized in Hanoi by the World Bank and FAO and host­ed by the Gov­ern­ment of Vietnam.

The choice of Viet­nam was no acci­dent. Yara and oth­er food and agribusi­ness multi­na­tion­als of the WEF had recent­ly launched a major pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship with the Viet­namese gov­ern­ment under which these cor­po­ra­tions were giv­en exclu­sive respon­si­bil­i­ty over the val­ue chains” of the coun­try’s main export com­modi­ties. Yara was put in charge of cof­fee and veg­eta­bles, and the pro­grams in Viet­nam were adopt­ed as the WEF’s first pilot project for cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture, which Yara was tasked with overseeing.

The pro­gram of the Sec­ond Glob­al Con­fer­ence was dom­i­nat­ed by Yara and the oth­er cor­po­ra­tions col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Viet­namese gov­ern­ment. Civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions were mar­gin­al­ized from the dis­cus­sions, and their vocal rejec­tion of the cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture” con­cept was ignored. While the pre­vi­ous con­fer­ence had called for a par­a­digm shift at all lev­els”, this time the con­fer­ence end­ed with a call for a par­a­digm shift in the role of the pri­vate sec­tor” to insti­tu­tion­al­ize and scale-up” pri­vate sec­tor involve­ment and move from pub­lic-pri­vate to pri­vate-pub­lic partnerships.”

By the time of the Third Glob­al Con­fer­ence in South Africa in 2013, the fer­til­iz­er lob­by and its allies had pro­duced a plan for the cre­ation of an Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture to be for­mal­ly pre­sent­ed at the UN Cli­mate Sum­mit in Sep­tem­ber 2014 as the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty’s main plat­form for action on cli­mate change and agriculture.

The U.S. State Depart­ment then took the lead in mov­ing the plan for­ward. At the Alliance’s Part­ner Meet­ing” in The Hague in July 2014, where the final details were ham­mered out, the Unit­ed States sent five gov­ern­ment offi­cials, four rep­re­sen­ta­tives of U.S. agribusi­ness lob­by groups and four cor­po­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tives — a num­ber equal to the entire num­ber of del­e­gates from devel­op­ing countries.

The inter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sions were hijacked by agribusi­ness com­pa­nies, the World Bank, the US and oth­er cli­mate smart agri­cul­ture-friend­ly gov­ern­ments,” says Hans Her­ren, a Swiss farmer, ento­mol­o­gist and win­ner of the 1995 World Food Prize. They have the mon­ey and the lob­by groups. Those of us defend­ing agroe­col­o­gy, local food sys­tems and small-scale farm­ing as the holis­tic and tru­ly cli­mate friend­ly solu­tion were sim­ply pushed out of the process.”

Today the Glob­al Alliance for Cli­mate Smart Agri­cul­ture is stacked with fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies, fer­til­iz­er front groups, and NGOs and com­pa­nies that work direct­ly with them. Its steer­ing com­mit­tee includes Yara, Mosa­ic, EDF and TNC, as well as their home gov­ern­ments of Nor­way and the Unit­ed Sates.

Back to a par­a­digm shift

Food and agri­cul­ture are low hang­ing fruits for action on cli­mate change. Dra­mat­ic and rapid reduc­tions in green­house gas emis­sions can be achieved in our food sys­tems with­out major eco­nom­ic con­se­quences. The elim­i­na­tion of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers is one of the eas­i­est and most effec­tive places to start.

Cut­ting out chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers could reduce annu­al glob­al green­house emis­sions by as much as 10 per­cent. Addi­tion­al­ly, the shift from chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers to agroe­co­log­i­cal prac­tices would allow farm­ers to rebuild organ­ic mat­ter in the world’s soils, and thus cap­ture a pos­si­ble two-thirds of the cur­rent excess CO2 in the atmos­phere with­in 50 years. There are also the added ben­e­fits of improved liveli­hoods for farm­ers, more nutri­tious foods, pro­tec­tion of the ozone lay­er and safe water systems.

No tech­ni­cal hur­dles stand in the way. Fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies may claim that if we stopped using their prod­ucts we would have to plough up the earth­’s remain­ing forests in order to meet glob­al food needs, but there are plen­ty of stud­ies show­ing that farm­ers using sim­ple agroe­co­log­i­cal prac­tices can pro­duce as much food with­out chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers on the same amount of land.

When it comes to glob­al food secu­ri­ty, we should be much more wor­ried about our depen­dence on the car­tels that the fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies oper­ate. Dur­ing the 2007 food price cri­sis, as a bil­lion peo­ple starved because they could no longer afford food, the fer­til­iz­er com­pa­nies jacked up their prices and held gov­ern­ments and farm­ers at ran­som. They point­ed to ris­ing costs for raw mate­ri­als (nat­ur­al gas) but the prof­its of Yara and Mosa­ic jumped a stag­ger­ing 100 per­cent that year.

Kick­ing the fer­til­iz­er habit is real­ly a mat­ter of pol­i­tics. No mean­ing­ful action can occur until the fer­til­iz­er indus­try’s grip on pol­i­cy mak­ers is loosened. 

This report, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished ahead of the COP21 con­fer­ence in Paris, is repost­ed here with per­mis­sion from GRAIN​.org. For addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion, back­ground and cita­tions, clck here.

GRAIN is a small inter­na­tion­al non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that works to sup­port small farm­ers and social move­ments in their strug­gles for com­mu­ni­ty-con­trolled and bio­di­ver­si­ty-based food sys­tems. Their sup­port takes the form of inde­pen­dent research and analy­sis, net­work­ing at local, region­al and inter­na­tion­al lev­els, and fos­ter­ing new forms of coop­er­a­tion and alliance-building.”
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue