Today is about Nitrate Fertilisers. And if you don’t know this stuff already, you’re going to be horrified.
Nitrate fertilisers are created through a process called the Haber-Bosch process, which was developed in the early 1900’s by German scientist Fritz Haber. The process fixes nitrogen (N2) from the air and binds it to Hydrogen from natural gas (CH4) to produce ammonia (NH3), which is one of the primary chemicals used to create nitrate fertilisers.
This process of creating ammonia is incredibly energy intensive due to the extremely high temperatures and pressures that are needed to force nitrogen and hydrogen to bond together. It’s so energy intensive that fertiliser production equates to about 3-5% of the entire global natural gas usage – or 1% of the entire global energy consumption ??
To put it in perspective, the UK as a whole is responsible for about 2.1% of global natural gas usage.
So, this process is a massive contributor to climate change – and that’s just in the production of these toxic compounds. If we consider what happens when they are used on the land, their impact is devastating. It’s bitterly ironic that this era of industrial fertilisers is called the ‘green revolution.’ ???
Furthermore, we are gaining a better understanding of soil science globally, as well as developing the means for even greater potential nitrogen fixation. We know that we can fix nitrogen in the soil using plants – as we have always done before. So why is this process even used?
To answer this question, we need to look at the historical context of the development of the Haber-Bosch process. The context is WAR… and the creation of the tools of WAR.
When the process to produce synthetic nitrogen was initially discovered, it was far too expensive and inefficient to produce at scale. However, scientist Carl Bosch developed a method which could be used for mass production and built the first plant capable of producing a ton of liquid ammonia in five hours.
Even with this development, the nitrate fertilisers it produced were far more expensive and not viable for farmers to use. So, it had very limited reach into food production at that time.
Ironically, this ammonia, which was seen to be a gift to humanity for its ability to allow far bigger crop yields, happened to be one of the main compounds in creating explosives. During World War I and II, chemical companies sprung up all over Europe to profit from the production of this essential compound to support the war effort.
With the end of World War II, these same companies then saw the demand for explosives disappear. In response, they switched over to produce ammonium nitrate (nitrate fertilisers) instead. This is why we now use these toxic compounds to produce industrial food – to keep defunct and pointless businesses alive. Corporate gain before common good.
Then, when we look at what happens when these toxins are used on the soil, this destructive industry is all the more painful to recognise.
Nitrate fertilisers come in the form of a saline solution. The increasing salt levels in the soil kills off the food web of microorganisms that existed in the living soils before their use. Also, plants – like many other organisms – are quite lazy; they will absorb whatever nutrients are easiest to take on. And nitrate fertilisers in this liquid salt form are by far the easiest nutrients to absorb. Additionally, the rest of the soil food web is destroyed by the toxic fertiliser, which means most of the other necessary 37 trace elements needed for nutrient dense food are not available to the plants.
Plus, through the killing of living soils, the overall structure of the soil is diminished. This creates dead soil which is unable to hold onto soil hummus and its nutrient base. Then, when rain hits this soil and creates runoff, unused nitrate fertilisers end up running off fields and into the surrounding waterways.
This toxic soup is then washed out to sea eventually creating even more environmental issues. In the ocean they mix with oxygen in the water and become a food source for algae. These algae blooms then block out the sunlight in the ocean and cause the plants below to die. The algae blooms then eventually die themselves. These dead plants and algae become food for bacteria, who produce Carbon Dioxide as a byproduct of consuming these dead plants and algae. This then de-oxygenates the ocean which kills all the remaining marine life, leaving marine dead zones ☠️☠️☠️
The most frustrating and heartbreaking thing about all of this: It isn’t even necessary!
Only 30% of the world’s food is produced using this f*cking terrible process, using 75% of the agricultural land to do so. It is causing the loss of soil at such an alarming rate that we are likely to have no topsoil left within 40 – 60 harvests. Food Armageddon is coming, and yet hardly anyone who is talking about this has a platform or is being listened to. In the worst cases they are being murdered. Think ocean plastic is a problem? It is. But this is far far bigger.
So why are we not changing this?
Government lobbying, big business interests, sheer stupidity of western systems of production, extractive violent colonial mindsets running the show… of course.
Giant corporations are making big profit out of selling these toxic ecosystem-destroying climate-f*cking compounds. Farmers are stuck on the treadmill of industrial agriculture where it is incredibly difficult to step off.
? So what do we need?
A complete change and better food systems ? We need more equitable access to land (more on this in a future rant) and for more agroecological farms – which help regenerate rural communities as a bonus. We need new policies which encourage new entrant ecological farmers from diverse backgrounds. We need a new ‘green’ farming revolution, one that is actually green, one that works with nature, one that is biologically progressive rather than chemically progressive. We need a food system that nourishes the planet and all beings ?