It turns out natural gas is one of the most significant raw materials in this regard: in the late 20th century, natural gas prices remained low and stable, stimulating the mass production of cheap nitrogen-based fertilizer, the backbone of today’s production agriculture. Cheap oil played an equally important role, as it is needed to manufacture transportation fuels and most agricultural chemicals.
Bottom line: American production agriculture critically depends on low and stable prices of oil and natural gas. Its no surprise such prices have been volatile and rising in the past decade. In the case of natural gas, volatile and rising prices have led to record increases in nitrogen fertilizer prices. Ask any American farmer how this cost alone has recently reduced farm profits. The International Fertilizer Industry Association recently published a worldwide fertilizer trade flow analysis showing a growing trend that the vast majority of the supply of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer is for the first time imported from overseas (www.icispricing.com). We believe better methods are needed to manufacture cheap nitrogen fertilizer without natural gas as a raw material - especially methods that promote local manufacturing in large and small communities alike.
The benefits of the green revolution came at a price – depleted nutrients in top soils and decreased top soil depth, increased soil compaction, and decreased water quality, to name a few. Furthermore, several leading economists are expressing concern that, at the rapid rate the world population is now growing, global food demand will sooner or later exceed supply (National Geographic June 2009). Thus, a major challenge in producing sufficient food while reducing negative economic and environmental impacts is to find cost points where profitability and sustainability intersect. We believe one such cost point may be vermicomposting, a process using worms to convert organic wastes into cheap, nitrogen-based soil amendments.