The past few weeks in the United Kingdom have brought a steady stream of ominous food headlines: Beer is being rationed! (In the middle of the World Cup, no less!) Barbecues might run out of meat! Bakeries have stopped making crumpets! And then our own Yasmeen Serhan checked in for a flight from Europe to find there would be no ice cream.
That's it, holiday ruined pic.twitter.com/UKpWkYM5Ds— Yasmeen Serhan (@YasmeenSerhan) July 3, 2018
What all of the above have in common is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide makes beer fizzy. It’s used to stun animals before slaughter. It keeps meat and crumpets fresh in their packaging by displacing oxygen. Frozen solid into dry ice, it keeps ice cream cold. And as absurd as it may sound when CO2 is rising in the atmosphere, Europe has been suffering a carbon-dioxide shortage—the “worst supply situation to hit the European carbon-dioxide (CO2) business in decades,” according the industry publication Gasworld.
The culprit? Ammonia fertilizer. And once you tug at the reason Europe is experiencing a carbon-dioxide shortage, you start to unravel the entangled supply chains of modern food production.
Factories can’t turn a profit on making pure carbon dioxide alone. Instead, the gas is made as a by-product of other chemicals, often ammonia fertilizer. That’s because the first step in manufacturing ammonia involves taking a hydrocarbon molecule like natural gas and splitting the “hydro” from the “carbon”: The hydrogen gets turned into ammonia (NH3) for fertilizer. The carbon gets turned into carbon dioxide (CO2), which is captured, purified, and liquified for all sorts of uses. In addition to the aforementioned foods, this CO2 also ends up used in packaged salad greens, soft drinks, coffee, and industrial processes like “enhanced oil recovery” in oil wells.