Fossil Fuels and Fertilizers Help India Aim for Record Crop Production

By Vijay Jayaraj

Despite global calls and political pressure from Washington to ban fossil fuels, India—one of the world’s biggest food crop producers—has announced a massive, 140 percent increase in fertilizer subsidies, though most of the fertilizers are produced with the help of fossil fuels. Why would India do that?

Among India’s 1.3 billion people, more than 54.6 percent are engaged in agriculture and allied activities. Thanks to fertilizers, pesticides, and implementation of agricultural technology, the sector grew by leaps and bounds in the last 7 decades.  Food grain in 2018–19 was almost 6 times what it was in 1951–52.

Fertilizers’ role in this success is critical. India, the United States, and China account for the consumption of more than 50 percent of all nitrogenous fertilizers in the world.

India has been making constant efforts to increase farmers’ ability to buy fertilizer. Last week, it enacted fertilizer subsidies, after international prices of fertilizer raw materials such as phosphoric acid, ammonia, and others rose sharply in 2021.

This comes at a crucial stage, when farmers are struggling with the COVID-19-induced slump in the economy.

Fertilizer Types and the Role of Fossil Fuels

Globally, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the key primary nutrients in commercial fertilizers. Based on composition, fertilizers can be categorized as nitrogenous (urea, ammonium sulfate), phosphate (single/triple super phosphate), potassic (muriate of potash), and those made up of macronutrients (Ca, Mg, O, C) and micronutrients (Zn, Mn, Cu, Fe, Mo, S).

Urea is the most widely used nitrogenous fertilizer in India, and it has a high nitrogen content. Di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) is the second most dominant fertilizer used in the country.

While the country manages to produce more than 80 percent of its urea, it depends on imports for other fertilizers. Around 90 percent of phosphatic fertilizers (including DAP) depend on imports, and almost all of potash (K) is imported. This means fertilizer prices (except for urea) are highly contingent on import prices.

With the new subsidy policy in effect, the cost of a bag of DAP will be around $16 instead of the actual price of $32, which the farmers would have had to pay this year.

Natural Gas: At the Heart of India’s Fertilizer Production

Fossil fuels are key to producing these fertilizers. Urea production is dependent on feedstocks such as coal and natural gas. Urea is made from combining liquid ammonia and liquid carbon dioxide. To produce ammonia, one needs hydrogen. Natural gas continues to remain as the major source of hydrogen.

Thirty-two facilities, with a combined capacity of 23.3 tons per year, manufacture urea in India. Among these, 30 use natural gas as feedstock. In 2017, “94 percent of India’s urea production capacity was natural-gas based.”

In other words, India relies on natural gas for the majority of its domestic fertilizer production, and stable natural gas supplies and prices are critical to keeping fertilizer costs down.

India has prioritized domestically produced natural gas for the fertilizer sector, as the country is aware of the implications it can have on national food security and farmer livelihoods. In 2016, 43 percent of all the natural gas used in the country went to the non-energy sector, especially the fertilizer sector.

Estimates indicate that natural gas imports will rise significantly for the foreseeable future due to the huge gap between demand and supply of natural gas, driven by demands in the fertilizer and power sector.

Besides, the very idea of fossil fuel being detrimental is wrong. In fact, the excess 20th century CO2 from anthropogenic sources has helped India’s farmers in a significant way.

More Carbon Dioxide, Not Less

The agricultural sector in India benefited from the global greening phenomenon that began at the end of the Little Ice Age (LIA) in the 18th century. The post-LIA global greening was driven by both an increase in global average temperature and an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, the same factors that the mainstream media paint as evil.

By the late 20th century, CO2 concentration levels in the atmosphere were at a historic high, partly due to rapid post-World War II industrialization across the globe. This coincided with the introduction of Norman Borlaug’s gene-edited crops in India during the 1970s.

Together, all the three factors—the increased CO2, the optimum temperature levels, and the new improved crop varieties—helped the Indian agricultural sector to plough forward with great speed. This explosion in agricultural production is better known as the green revolution of India

Today, continued increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations enables India to produce record crop output every year. In recent years, the forest area has enlarged, thanks to CO2 and a number of good forest management practices.

Given that the majority of Indian farmers fall in the low-income category, the country cannot afford a rise in the price of domestically produced fertilizers. This is why India will expand its natural gas exploration and increase imports in the coming decade—regardless of pressures to abandon natural gas to fight climate change.

The country, and the agricultural experts, are also aware that CO2 has helped boost agriculture and the economy. Regardless of short-term disruptions, it is likely that sense will prevail and the country’s strategists will continue to promote fossil fuels as important sources for energy and non-energy sectors like fertilizer manufacturing.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in Bengaluru, India.


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