Survival requires an adequate food supply

“Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply. Without fertilizer, forget it.”

These are the words of Dr. Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the “green revolution” for ­developing disease resistant wheat varieties that saved millions from starvation. Dr. Borlaug is only one of seven people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Dr. Borlaug’s statement about ­fertilizer’s importance in the world is simple and prophetic. Fertilizer’s role in plant growth and food production is critical because food security—­having enough food to feed a ­growing population—remains one of the ­greatest challenges facing ­humanity. A new technology being utilized in the U.S., and soon in Illinois, to safely unlock natural gas resources ­(hydraulic fracturing), plays a substantial part in our nation’s ability to feed and protect its citizens.

To understand fertilizer’s ­importance, a look at history reveals how fertilizer has played a ­startling role, and demonstrates why its produc­tion in the U.S. is critical to our food future and to our national security.

Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) are the building blocks of life. Nitrogen is the most essential because it helps in the formation of protein. Because of the importance of nitrogen in growing food, there have been wars fought over fertilizer. In the early 1800’s when population began to increase significantly and demand for food along with it, European countries fought over rich deposits of bird ­droppings (fertilizer) on remote and coastal islands. In 1856, the U.S. claimed some of these islands as U.S. territories not because they would become tourist destinations, but as a source of fertilizer for American ­farmers. These islands later ended up being key strategic bases for the U.S. in WWII, leading to the defeat of Japan.

When the deposits of bird ­droppings were exhausted in the late 1880’s, two German ­scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, ­developed an efficient industrial process that ­utilizes natural gas to turn ­atmospheric ­nitrogen into ammonia-based ­fertilizers. The first nitrogen plant was built in 1910, and the two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in developing a sus­tainable source of nitrogen for food ­production. A sad footnote to this chapter in history is that Germany also used the nitrogen to produce ammunition. Had it not been for the Haber-Bosch process, Germany would have likely run out of ­ammunition and WWI would have ended earlier, nor would Germany have had the food or munitions to launch WWII. But soon other countries, including the U.S., built their own nitrogen manufacturing plants, ­stabilizing our world as history reveals.

Today, 60 percent of humanity owes its existence to the production of nitrogen fertilizer, as do many forms of wildlife. Without it, vast acres of habitat would have been cleared for crop production in an effort to keep up with the worlds’ growing population.

Now back to hydraulic fracturing. The U.S. was a key producer of fer­tilizer until natural gas prices in the U.S. soared in the late 1990’s, some say due to lack of a sound energy policy.

In 2006, we had the highest priced natural gas in the world. In that period, 27 U.S. nitrogen manufac­turing plants were permanently closed because they could not compete in the world nitrogen marketplace. As a result, we now import 55 percent of our nitrogen from foreign countries, jeopardizing our food security. Our country is losing out on manufac­turing jobs and we must pay other countries for a life-essential product we can and should be producing in the U.S.

Jean Payne is President of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association in Bloomington, Ill.
Jean Payne is President of the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association in Bloomington, Ill.

But things are turning around. Hydraulic fracturing has resulted in stable and low natural gas prices making us once again a competitive force in the world fertilizer marketplace. U.S. based fertilizer com­panies are rebounding quickly, adding production and jobs. Countries like Egypt and Turkey are looking to the Midwest and even to Illinois to build new fertilizer production facilities. It’s a remarkable development and it’s all attributed to ample natural gas resources now available to us from hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas = nitrogen = food ­security = national security = ­economic prosperity. Without ­fertilizer, forget it..