Written By Lissie Lyles |
Bred from thin air, or lessons from the not so distant past?
“Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing. It is [far] better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas—fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico are drier than they’ve ever been—the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.” ~ Bill McKibben, from the Washington Post
Whether we want to submit these drastic environmental changes under the heading of “human caused climate change” or not, we have to admit that there must be some connection between the rash of “natural” disasters that have devastated our country in recent months and years. The tornadoes, floods, droughts and fires that are sweeping across this country are indicative of a planet that is not healthy, a planet that is out of balance. We can choose to ignore these symptoms all we want, but doing so will not help the situation to improve. If our own body was exhibiting multiple symptoms of imbalance and illness, we would more than likely heed these warnings if we did not want the disease to progress irreversibly. When are we going to heed these same warnings from the great body of earth, on which our fragile lives depend?
Many of us can acknowledge the links between burning fossil fuels and an increase in greenhouse gasses; however the contributing factors to global warming are numerous. How we choose to organize our food systems and our farming practices has greatly impacted our environment and climate. In this three part series, we will explore how our choices in farming practices can either harm the earth, or help it to heal. We will also show how the health of an ecosystem is reflected in the health of the community that dwells there. In order to understand how to move forward in a responsible way, we must examine our past actions and learn from them. The history of fertilizer provides us with several important lessons.
Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium are the three most essential nutrients for plants. None of today’s major crops can survive without them. All of them can be found, in varying amounts, in manures and composts. For most plants, the most essential of the three is nitrogen. There are different types of nitrogen, for example, the air we breathe is composed of 80 percent nitrogen; but airborne nitrogen cannot be accessed by plants or animals. Plants depend upon fixed nitrogen, in the soil. Uncultivated virgin soils have fixed nitrogen stored in them; as the amount of fixed nitrogen is used by crops, the soil fertility drops year after year.
In the fall of 1898 Sir William Crookes, the incoming president of the British Academy of Sciences, issued a dire warning. The combination of an increasing world population, and a dwindling of available fertile soil, would pose the threat of famine and starvation as soon as the 1930′s. There was only one way out, he argued. The creation of vast amounts of synthetic fertilizer would be necessary to meet the increasing demands for food.
It must also be noted that nitre, a type of salt, also called saltpeter, originally discovered underground in caves, basements and crypts, is also essential in the process of making gunpowder. A single substance with the ability to increase crop yields, and supply a military with weapons, is a thing of value to any aspiring empire. The acquisition of it was a significant factor in the British takeover of India, for example. In addition to true saltpeter, there is also saltire, which is found in abundance throughout South America. For most of the 1800′s, many nations including the US, Britain and Germany depended on imported nitrites for both food and firearms.
Motivated by Crooke’s warning, an ambitious German chemist named Fritz Haber began experimenting with ways to extract nitrogen from the air, and turn it into a source of fixed nitrogen, in the form of ammonium sulfate. This had been attempted by other chemists without success, but Haber finally managed to do so in 1909. Then, in collaboration with Carl Bosch, they created gigantic machines capable of producing ammonia in unprecedented amounts. This discovery put Germany in a position of great advantage. It could now produce its own fertilizer, bombs and gunpowder at less expense than importing it, and it was the only nation with access to the technology.
The German government invested massive amounts of money to create two separate plants that housed the Haber-Bosch machines. These plants supplied the German Military in both world wars. Within their walls, the concept of chemical warfare was born. These laboratories created the poison gases used in the trenches of World War I and the concentration camps of World War II. Many of the key ingredients and processes stemmed from the technologies and materials used to create fertilizer.
Today, Haber-Bosch machines exist all over the world, drawing nitrogen from the air and converting it to synthetic fertilizer. These machines, and the materials they produce, have been credited with providing food to millions, if not billions of people. In some regions of the world that were facing extreme malnutrition due to famine, there now exists obesity epidemics. This has not been the only unintended consequence that has come from the use of these fertilizers.
Only some of the synthetic nitrogen stays in the soil, the rest is either re-released into the air, or into the water. Irrigation and soil run-off carries the nitrogen far from the farm fields. Nitrogen pollution in the water feeds blooms of algae that cloud the water, reducing the amount of sunlight that can reach plant life; which affects the entire food chain, killing all life below. As the vegetation dies and rots, it pulls oxygen out of the water. This affects both fresh water systems and oceans. Roughly 1.5 million tons of fixed nitrogen flow into the Baltic Sea north of Germany every year, making it one of the most polluted marine ecosystems on earth, and collapsing a once thriving cod-fishing trade. The Great Barrier Reef, Mediterranean and Black Seas are also showing effects of this pollution. The largest area of nitrate affected waters is the dead zone, off the coast of Louisiana in the US. It is an area the size of the state of New Jersey, and growing. This dead zone is one of more than 150 dead zones that have been identified around the world.
The very material that was celebrated as a substance that could end world hunger is contributing to the death of thousands of life forms that were once available food sources. Meanwhile, the use of these fertilizers in combination with mono cropping, has contributed to the processed foods that are often implicated as a cause of obesity. Furthermore, repeated application of nitrogen fertilizers strips the soil itself, making it less able to absorb water, contributing to droughts, mudslides and floods. Healthy soil is able to hold more greenhouse gasses than depleted soil. The less healthy the soil, the more carbon is released into the air.
When Crooke’s made his dire warning back in 1898, there were several factors that he failed to take into account. For instance, he failed to acknowledge the role that mono-cropping of nitrogen greedy plants, such as wheat and corn, play in reduced soil fertility. He didn’t consider the inefficiency of favoring annual food crops, which must be replanted year after year, over perennial ones, which can thrive for many years, and increase yields over time. He failed to take into account that with the increased industrialization and urbanization, comes a reduction in available land for growing food; and a higher cost to ship food from afar. To suggest that synthetic nitrogen is the one and only solution is limiting, to say the least.
Even Bosch himself was able to recognize the paradox inherent in his machine. In 1921, after an explosion at one of the original Haber-Bosch plants killed hundreds of workers, Bosch spoke candidly at the memorial, “It was precisely the stuff meant to provide nourishment and life to millions…the stuff which we produced and distributed for years, which suddenly proved itself to be a cruel enemy for reasons we do not know. It has put our work to ashes.”
To create new methods of stabilizing the nitrogen in our soil, while being mindful of the impact that is sustained by the entire ecosystem, will be numbered among the great challenges of our generation.
Part two will explore the effects of GMO seeds.
1. Hager, Tomas. The Alchemy of Air. Three Rivers Press. New York, 2008