Big Agriculture’s Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer Is Destroying Your Health
From 509 to 27 BCE, ancient Rome was the epicenter of Europe. The period of Roman rule was a time of great intellect, discovery and culture. Rome ruled throughout large parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Roman officials were responsible for feeding their subjects.
At that time, the Roman Empire was filled with small, self-sufficient farms and large estates where slaves were responsible for agriculture. The Roman elite embraced agriculture; with Cicero, a famous philosopher, stating that it’s the best Roman occupation.
Cicero once wrote that “of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man.”
Romans grew many things, the most popular were olives, grapes and grain. They studied and tried different methods to help agricultural yield, and found that animal manure was very good for the soil. They believed that poultry manure was the best choice, followed by sheep and goat, with cow and horse manure being the worst.
Animal manure became the very first type of fertilizer used by humans to improve soil quality and promote plant life. Ancient Romans and Greeks both used animal manure on soil because they knew that it adds organic matter to the soil, promotes water drainage and improves microbial activity.
Do you know what’s added to our soil today? The same gases that were used to make munitions in World War II. So the nitrogen bomb and your salad have a thing or two in common.
The question we should all ask ourselves is this: If over 2,500 years ago, humans figured out a natural way to promote plant life and soil health, why is it that our current agricultural practices are destroying everything — our soil, our environment and our health?
Today, big corporations control most of the agricultural practices that feed the masses. They have transformed the farming processes of our forefathers into an assembly line that requires many additives to sustain itself. While the goal was originally to promote yield and make food more affordable for everyone, scientists are now finding that these practices are not sustainable and dangerous.
“The more we pour the big machines, the fuel, the pesticides, the herbicides, the fertilizer and chemicals into farming, the more we knock out the mechanism that made it all work in the first place,” warns environmentalist David R. Brower.
Read on to learn about how synthetic fertilizer was created, its detrimental effects and what we can do to save the soil and save ourselves.
The Journey of Synthetic Fertilizer
It’s fascinating how today’s agricultural practices have come so far from the days where most people grew their own food. The true change occurred when farming became reliant on science, starting with the creation of a regimented formula of ingredients and procedures to get the intended output.
Scientists narrowed down on the 16 key nutrients that soil requires1:
Some of these, such as carbon and oxygen, are readily supplied in the environment; yet others must be added to the soil to sustain plant life. In the early 20th century, U.S., Canada and Germany attempted to solve this problem by adding nutrients to the soil to increase yield. To find them, they started mining for potassium in potash deposits and mining for phosphorus from phosphate rock as well as utilizing chemical processes to make it.
Nitrogen is readily available in our planet as a gas; in fact 80% of the air we breathe is made up on nitrogen. However, we can’t just ingest that gas into the soil to help plants grow as they require nitrate, a nutrient that soil can digest. In order to create nitrate, nitrogen needs to be bonded with three oxygen atoms. The problem was that, at that time, no one had any idea about how to create this formula.
The catalyst that led to the creation of a nitrate-based fertilizer was the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. This event disrupted the practice of most Europeans growing their own food when it led many European country dwellers to move to the city to work in factories. This resulted in many deserted farms and much more city residents that needed to be fed as they no longer had room to grow their own food.
Chemist Fritz Haber from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany solved this problem when he added a sheet of osmium with nitrogen and hydrogen gases into a steel chamber and turned up the pressure and heat. With this combination, Haber created ammonia, and transformed nitrogen into the needed form for plant life.
German chemist and engineer Carl Bosch scaled this experiment, which became known as the Haber-Bosch process, “considered by many as one of the most important technological advances of the 20th century 2.” In fact, Haber earned the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of synthetic fertilizer.
Nitrogen was also used to make munitions, which were in high demand during World War II. The U.S. built 10 nitrogen plants during this time, which were all used to make fertilizer once the war was over and there was no more need the weapons.
The problem was that this new invention didn’t come with instructions, and was highly explosive. After all, when it’s mixed with fuel, it creates the same explosives used in mines. As such, synthetic nitrogen led to many explosions as it was being transported on ships. Others that attempted to utilize ammonia often burned their skin or even died from asphyxiation.
Finally, in 1943, researchers from the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station figured out a way to inject anhydrous ammonia straight into the soil. By 1950, 2.6 tons of ammonia was being used to cultivate crops, and “as a direct result, the world’s population skyrocketed from 1.6 billion to six billion during the 20th century1.”
The Downside of Synthetic Fertilizer
No one can argue that Haber’s invention was beneficial to feeding billions of people around the world; however, its aftermath can be catastrophic because of the following consequences.
An image of stripped soil in Fairfax County Virginia. Courtesy: Wikimedia
Although the soil needs nitrogen to grow plants, it turns out that nitrogen-based fertilizer strips the much needed nutrients from soil in the long run. Soil organic matter (SOM) is made up of decomposed animal manure, plant residues, soil organisms and other substances. All of these ingredients are vital nutrients that prevent leaching and erosion and improve aeration. When synthetic fertilizer is used over and over again in continuous cycles, it leaves each generation of crops with less vitamins than its predecessors.
SOM gets eroded with the use of synthetic fertilizers, which dramatically decreases soil productivity and yield. As more nutrients get depleted in the soil, more fertilizer is required to “replace them,” which creates a never ending cycle. Adding more fertilizer is a temporary solution because the soil will ultimately become so depleted of nutrients that it will not be able to sustain any crops at all.
Most of the U.S. population is so removed from growing their own food that they may falsely believe that the harsh effects of N-fertilizer will not impact their lives. The truth is that this is a problem for the entire plant because this practice pollutes the environment.
Enormous quantities of nitrous oxide are required to make synthetic fertilizers, which is a greenhouse gas with 300 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide (CO2)3.
“The agricultural sector, directly or indirectly, produces from 17 to 32% of the total global emissions of greenhouse gases caused by humans.” — Good Planet4
This process creates ground level ozone, which is responsible for smog that is detrimental to human respiratory systems and interferes with the beneficial ozone that blocks harmful UV rays, which will exacerbate global warming.
Nitrogen-based fertilizer runoff also pollutes groundwater and other drinking supplies. This problem “causes a loss of certain plant species, depletion of soil nutrients, death of fish and aquatic organisms, and contamination of drinking water,” according to independent research5.
“Agriculture’s reliance on plentiful synthetic nitrogen brings with it a whole bevy of environmental liabilities: excess nitrogen that seeps into streams…, feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life6; emissions of nitrous oxide7, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon; and the destruction of organic matter in soil8,” explains Mother Jones9.
N-fertilizer has created dead zones in certain bodies of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico. We must take measures now to prevent those zones from spreading from the sea to land. “We’re getting to the point where dead zones will be continuous bands around the continents,” warns marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson3 of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA.
Nitrogen-based fertilizer was originally meant to be a short-term solution, but as it was responsible for dramatically increasing agricultural yield, it became a favorite practice of big agriculture. What’s evident today is that this solution needs to change, and change quickly, because it leads to a myriad of health concerns.
How can we be exposed to synthetic fertilizer if we don’t farm ourselves? The main culprit is contaminated drinking water; the second biggest cause of exposure to nitrate from fertilizers is from eating green, leafy and root vegetables.
Nitrate stores in ground water under farmed land, as well as in rivers and streams from runoff. Ninety percent of the rural U.S. population10 relies on groundwater, such as private wells, for their water supply. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains certain levels of nitrate in public water utilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act, that doesn’t apply to private wells. This means that many U.S. citizens are drinking water with unregulated levels of nitrate.
Runoff of fertilizer and soil. Courtesy: Wikimedia
Synthetic fertilizer has led to the following health conditions10:
- Methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome)
- Various types of cancers
- Neural tube defects
- Thyroid conditions
The problem is that many of the people that experience these health concerns don’t know the true cause, and others that are in danger don’t know how to prevent them.
Nitrogen Fertilizer Today
Statistics about the use of synthetic fertilizers are staggering—half of all the foods grown in the entire world today are facilitated by nitrogen-based fertilizers on commercial farms11. “Use of the three major fertilizer nutrients increased from 46.2 nutrient pounds per acre per year (lb/acre/yr) in 1960 to a peak of 146 lb/acre/yr in 2004, an increase of 215 percent,” and over 200 tons12 is projected to be used currently.
A drone distributes synthetic fertilizer pellets. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Big agriculture largely relies on nitrogen-based fertilizers because it is seen as the best way to feed a booming population, with global agricultural production predicted to be 60% higher13 in 2050 than in 2005/07. It’s easy to understand why there is an addiction to fertilizer — it’s inexpensive and leads to big agricultural yield and profits for big corporations.
While the warnings and scientific evidence on the use of synthetic fertilizers are dire, there is hope! Many parts of the world, such as Europe, are aware of this problem, and are cutting down on the use of this product and imposing strict regulations and fines.
For example, Pierre-Francois Dumas14, independent consultant and former general secretary of the European Independent Fertilizer Blenders and Distributors, found that French farmers are using 50% less synthetic fertilizer now than they have in the last 10 years.
Here in the U.S., there is some movement in the right direction, as well. The biggest name associated with this goal is Rick Haney, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researcher, who made it his life’s mission to teach farmers across the U.S. methods to make the soil healthier
“Our mindset nowadays is that if you don’t put down fertilizer, nothing grows,” says Haney15. “But that’s just not true, and it never has been.”
The question of the day, or of the century, is if one person in the USDA knows this fact, why don’t the others? Why is the American government not following suit and making laws and regulations like the European government?
The main reason is profit—the corporations that benefit from using fertilizers are the ones that are sponsoring and conducting the studies on its effects, states Haney. Therefore, we may not be getting the true answers that these studies should provide.
However, Haney believes both big agriculture and the government may not have a choice in continuing to ignore the harmful effects of synthetic fertilizer. He says that although crop yield is at a high, the amount of fertilizer required to upkeep crop cycles is unsustainable because the soil is so depleted.
Solutions for the Use of Synthetic Fertilizer
Solutions for Farmers
One way to eliminate or reduce the use of synthetic fertilizer without compromising agricultural yield is to go back to16 the traditional farming method of rotating crops. This simply means that farmers would grow different crops in subsequent seasons, instead of growing the same crops time and time again in the same space.
The Union of Concerned Scientists strongly believes that a greater variety of crops will lead to a healthier and more sustainable soil, while allowing farmers to utilize less and less N-based fertilizers. They found that “that multi-year, multi-crop rotations produce high yields for each crop in the rotation, control pests and weeds with less reliance on chemical pesticides, and enhance soil fertility with less need for synthetic fertilizers.”
Leave the Land Fallow
Another option that farmers can use to “cure the soil” is to leave the land fallow (plowed but not seeded during the planting season). This would prevent nutrients and minerals from leaching from the soil as each planting cycle drains something from the soil. By allowing the land to rest, farmers would let the soil natural nutrients to rebalance and restore.
Plant Nitrogen Absorbing Crops
Certain micro-organisms of plants can absorb nitrogen, thus improve air quality. These include:
- Sesiania rostrata (legume)
Use Organic Fertilizer
Farmers can also use organic fertilizer in lieu of synthetic options to cure the soil. This type of fertilizer can be made from animal or plant origin, such as algae, organic waste, guano or manure. These types of fertilizer have been used much further back in history than options created in the lab. While they also have an affect on our environment, it is considerably lower than the alternative.
Solutions for Individuals
Plant Your Own Vegetables and Fruits
Unfortunately, many people know that big corporations can’t always be trusted. Plus, the confusing language and regulations that monitor agricultural practices leave many of us unsure of what we are eating and exposed to.
A great solution that regular people can implement to protect themselves from nitrogen fertilizer is to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Even city dwellers can partake in this activity, utilizing back and front yards, balconies and patios to plant. This way, you can use sustainable practices and treat yourself and your family to foods that haven’t been compromised by synthetic and poisonous fertilizer.
When purchasing fruits and vegetables, try to buy organic if your budget permits. Organic farming practices use strategies such as crop rotation in order to avoid synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides.
Support Local Farmers Markets
When visiting a farmer’s market, you often have the opportunity to meet the very people that grow the foods they are selling. You can ask them about their farming practices, and even inquire about visiting the farm to see the process for themselves.
Plus, fruits and vegetables at farmers markets are typically much fresher than those in supermarkets because they are harvested and delivered by the farmers. This makes the foods much more nutrient-dense and flavorful.
It can be shocking to read about the practices today’s farmers and big corporations use to maximize crop yield. However, do not sit back and think that this matter is out of your hands. Do your research and find organic and sustainable farms that make it their mission to offer healthy foods without harming the environment. This will allow you to support these “modern” farmers and help them overtake big corporations that pollute our environment and compromise our health.
Transform Your Health With Supplementation
It can seem like the odds are stacked against us when faced with economic and social forces that impact our health in ways that we still don’t fully understand. From corporate influence on food production to the hidden histories behind our diseases, the legacy of poor health in the U.S. is one that is suffered by too many for too long .
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Citations and Sources
- 1 Living History Farm, “Postwar Fertilizer Explodes“
- 2 Science History Institute “Fritz Haber“
- 3 Scientific American, “Nitrogen Fertilizer: Agricultural Breakthrough And Environmental Bane“
- 4 Good Planet Magazine, “The Agricultural World’s Addiction to Fertilizer“
- 5 SFGate, “The Negative Effects of Nitrogen-Rich Fertilizer to the Environment“
- 6 Scientific American, “Dead Zone Pollutant Grows Despite Decades of Work“
- 7 University of California, Berkeley “Fertilizer Use Responsible for Increase in Nitrous Oxide in Atmosphere“
- 8 Grist, “New Research: Synthetic Nitrogen Destroys Soil Carbon, Undermines Soil Health“
- 9 Mother Jones, “A Brief History of Our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer“
- 10 National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Too Much of a Good Thing? Nitrate From Nitrogen Fertilizers and Cancer“
- 11 Crop Nutrition, “The Facts: Nitrogen Fertilizer“
- 12 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Fertilizer Use to Surpass 200 Million Tonnes in 2018“
- 13 Global Sustainable Development Report, “Fertilizer Addiction: Implications for Sustainable Agriculture“
- 14 Progressive Farmer, “Global Fertilizer Outlook“
- 15 Yale Environment 360, “Why It’s Time to Stop Punishing Our Soils With Fertilizers“
- 16 Union of Concerned Scientists, “Healthy Farm Practices: Crop Rotation and Diversity“