The Tar Sands Are Eating Our Dinner

While TreeHugger wishes that all of our food was organic and made without fertilizers, the fact is that much of North America's agriculture is dependent on nitrogen fertilizer, and it is made with natural gas. One could almost extend Michael Pollan's statement that "we are all made of corn" down the pipe to "we are all made of natural gas." According to the Dominion, this fertilizer is an essential nutrient in North America's food production system. "In a fairly direct way," says Darrin Qualman, Director of Research at the National Farmers Union, "natural gas is a primary feedstock for our food supply."

And what are we doing with our dwindling and increasingly expensive supplies of it? Cooking rocks to squeeze out automotive fuel.

We quote from the Dominion:

"If you're farming in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, using a fertilizer supply based on natural gas from Alberta looks workable," says Qualman. "But if tomorrow our fertilizer is made from natural gas sourced in Russia or the Middle East, we in effect become dependent on offshore, highly unstable supplies for our food system."

In terms of fueling the current food system, there are few compelling alternatives to natural gas. Coal is a possible source of nitrogen but is not nearly as efficient. In some scenarios, nuclear power plants can be used to produce fertilizer.

A more fundamental alternative, says Qualman, is to begin restructuring the food system. Traditionally, nitrogen fixing is performed by crops like beans and chickpeas. Or, it is recycled to cropland from animal manures. Using crop rotation and natural sources to provide nitrogen and reducing energy inputs to agriculture requires changes to diets and far more intensive use of human labour.

Says Qualman, "Given the industrial food system and given a meat-based diet, nitrogen and natural gas are absolutely essential."

The decision to invest huge amounts of natural gas into the tar sands will have ripple effects through the food system, says Qualman. "As North America becomes natural gas short, as we pass peak and become net importers, we're going to set up a competitive trade-off between the uses of natural gas" -- tar sands, food, heating and power generation among them. ::The Dominion

Tags: Alberta | Canada | Fertilizer | Peak Oil