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Petroleum in Real Life: Food, Fertilizer and Fuel

The security of our food supply depends more on oil and natural gas than we might realize.

The relationship between oil and natural gas and the food we eat goes beyond the trucks, boats, planes and trains that carry crops from farms to grocery stores. In fact the food security we enjoy today would not be possible without something made from oil and gas feedstocks: synthetic fertilizers.

According to the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “of all the innovations in agriculture, arguably none has been more influential than synthetic fertilizers.” It has allowed global food production to keep pace with global population—which between 1900 and 2011 increased from 1.6 billion to 7 billion.

And with global population continuing to rise (it’s expected to reach close to 10 billion by 2050) and a finite supply of arable land, the emphasis will be on continuing to improve crop yields in a sustainable manner.

Synthetic fertilizers can help increase crop yields: meaning you can grow more food using the same amount of land.


Fertilizers from natural gas 

Nitrogen, together with phosphorous and potassium, is one of the biggest macro-nutrients required for plant growth. Natural gas is a commonly used as a feedstock to produce two nitrogen-based fertilizers – ammonia and urea – in large quantities.

In the production of ammonia or urea, natural gas is processed at an upgrading plant together with nitrogen (taken from the air). During the process, 80% of the gas is used as feed¬stock for fertilizer, while the remaining 20% is used for heat and electricity production. The two main end products, ammonium nitrate and urea, are then mixed with other ingredients—mainly phosphorus and potassium—to manufacture a range of synthetic fertilizers for use on farms. 

The case for petrochemical fertilizers 

Nitrogen-based fertilizers have been shown to drastically improve yields over organic means of fertilization, such as manure or compost. As such, use of synthetic fertilizers is about 50 per cent higher in Canada than it was a decade ago. 

A key advantage of synthetic fertilizers is their ability to either be immediately available to plants—by virtue of their solubility—or to slowly release their active ingredients to provide an ongoing nutrient supply. Both of these properties can be highly desirable to farmers, as the former creates immediate growth response in the target, and the latter has longer-term benefits—like decreased costs—with less frequency required for fertilizer application. 

Rise of Integrated Agricultural Solutions 

One of the criticisms of petrochemical fertilizers is that because they are formulated to be absorbed directly by the plant itself, the underlying soil health is ignored. As such, soil can become more of a growing medium than a source of fertility. While this can happen, advances in science, coupled with today’s highly integrated approach to farming ensure that synthetic fertilizers are not applied in a silo. The underlying soil can be professionally analyzed by agronomists and treated as required. Nutrients such as phosphates or potassium can be added back to farmed fields to more readily bring them back to original health. A rising number of companies are offering these combined solutions in an effort sustainably improve crop yields and feed the world’s growing population. 

As such, integrated agricultural solutions focus not only on plant growth via the production of ammonia-based fertilizers, but also on soil health, and the overall environmental footprint of farming. By helping farmers to adopt new technologies and agronomy practices, fertilizer companies can promote a full-spectrum, life-cycle approach to farming.

An infographic showing what types of fertilizers, petroleum based, are used to grow food.