Inputs Monitor Editor Davis Michaelsen adds his perspective into the happenings of the inputs markets.
A World Without Fertilizer -- Hank Jr. was Right
Aug 09, 2013
A quick look at recent headlines is enough to make me nervous. "Victims of West fertilizer explosion ‘captured my heart,’ says U.S. Senator who pushed Obama on chemical safety review" from the Dallas Morning News; "The End of Environment-Destroying Fertilizers Could Be Near" from Care2.com; "Mayors work on safety evacuation plan for residents near fertilizer plants" from KXII news channel 12 in Texas; "Farm fertilizer runoff wreaking havoc" from the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
The global headcount has increased from 1 billion in the year 1800 to 7 billion in just over 200 years. It is estimated that roughly one third of the world's population has fertilizer to thank for their existence. Plants do grow without fertilizer, but the yield from unfertilized crops would do little more than support subsistence farming and small scale animal husbandry. Without the yield building benefits of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with other select nutrients, soil nutrients and organic matter would quickly dry up leaving the soil unable to support vegetative growth, and unable to support the current population of the earth.
There is a confluence of trouble in the way the rest of the nation views fertilizer. Combine the tragic explosions witnessed this summer at fertilizer facilities with a public becoming increasingly aware of the eutrophication of the Gulf of Mexico because of N&P runoff, and fertilizer finds itself squared off against public opinion -- a public that understands less about agriculture by the day.
Imagine a world where the American farmer cannot use commercial fertilizer by law. The reductions to the national food supply would be disastrous. An end to state fair corn dogs, corn flakes, tofu -- hippies take note -- bacon, BBQ, commercial bread and pasta -- McDonalds would fold along with Perkins, Stuckeys, and yes, even my beloved Cracker Barrel. Whole Foods Grocery stores would become the new Fort Knox and as supplies of hippie food dwindle, citizens will do anything to feed their urban families.
The decline in yield in the event of a fertilizer ban would rewind our economy to somewhere around the time just following the Revolutionary War. Fine if you know how to feed your family from the soil, potentially fatal if you live in a Manhattan apartment.
Ethanol's mitigating impact on U.S. fuel prices would grind the combustion engine to a halt. Now you've really got trouble. Percherons become the new Massey Ferguson and hook & harness are the new PTO.
The world's population would thin as Agri-Darwinism rules the day -- only those with dusty boots survive to reproduce. An unlikely scenario. But consider the ramifications of a U.S. corn crop less than half of what it is today -- a crop grown in soil without the benefit of commercial fertilizer that would decline year after year as soil nutrition declines. An end to export revenues and trade relations, in fact, an end to selling corn at all as farmers would be forced to choose between selling crops or feeding their livestock and children with that golden commodity.
To the good, corn prices would skyrocket, but the best of the crop would stay in the bin, and eventually make its way back onto the field in the form of Bessie's manure. The remaining supplies on the farm would be held until carryover was guaranteed and the crops that might make it to market would be the stale old-crop cast offs after farmers cover their own individual feed needs with the good stuff.
I have had conversations with my grandma about life during the Great Depression. She does not recall being hungry or destitute or even aware that cityfolk were jumping out of windows in New York. "In fact, I remember, we would get one present at Christmastime and the one year I got a new doll. I was so excited and felt so blessed. We ate chicken and pie and always had bacon and a great big garden...we [the 8 children] didn't know anything was wrong." Grandma said.
I'm talking crazy here. No, I do not expect a total collapse, reviving the idyllic agrarian lifeways of the not so distant past. The above has all been overblown in hopes that those who do not fully appreciate the benefits of commercial fertilizer will realize that, while farmers don't have any problem with restoring the health of our watersheds, and regulations should be in place to stop deadly explosions, banning fertilizer would cancel the prospects of the advancement of the human race. But in that world, I think Hank Jr. says it best, "The interest is up and the stock market's down and you only get mugged if you go downtown, I live back in the woods you see, my woman and the kids and the dogs and me. I've got a shotgun, a rifle and a four wheel drive and a country boy can survive."
Photo credit: David C. Foster / Foter / CC BY-ND
Photo credit: gem66 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Ðeni [back..sort of] / Foter / CC BY-NC
Song credit: "A Country Boy Can Survive" -- Hank Williams Jr. via youtube.com