Adapting the weapons of war
It is one of the anomalies of life of earth that plants find it exceedingly difficult to take nitrogen from the air and use it to grow. Nitrogen is 80% of what's up there, and vital to life on earth.
It is also amazing how much food and farming have changed, because of the perhaps aptly named fertility furnace of German scientist Fritz Haber.
One hundred years ago, in July 1909, Haber brought some of BASF's top scientists to his lab. Haber thought he could take nitrogen from the air in a way that made commercial sense.
Haber's furnace had an iron tube containing a nickel heating coil. Inside the tube, a mixture of gases - nitrogen and hydrogen - were brought in under pressure and heated to over 500 degrees centigrade.
From this, Haber planned to produce a white ammonia gas, which in turn could be turned into ammonium sulphate – nitrogen fertilizer. After a glitch which meant all bar two of the attendees left early, a few drops of liquid ammonia was produced, and history was made. Carl Bosch, who shared both the name of this new Haber-Bosch process and the Nobel prizes, was actually one of those who left early that July day. He did, however, commercialise the process: within less than a decade a plant in Saxony was producing more than 100,000 tonnes of nitrogen a year.
The fertility furnace and war
There will be many positive stories from the world of science and technology about this phase in human progress on this 100th anniversary. There is, however, an alternative view.
Whatever about the rhetoric of ending famine, as popular then as now, the purpose of such incredible production upscaling was war.
The Haber-Bosch process also provided the ingredients for explosives, which Germany needed for its Word War One (WW1) effort. With blockades preventing the usual supplies and components, Germany's ability to make their own munitions may well have kept them in the war for longer. Thus millions died.
Only after WW1 did the rest of the world gain access to the technology of the fertility furnace.
Farming and war
It is often surprising to learn just how interrelated with war much of what we call progress actually is. Providing flying bomb machines for the military was one the Wright Brother's main motivations1. Farming is implicated too. Spam, that great addition to culinary heritage, came from the Napolenic wars. The French army marched eastwards until their canned meat went green and started to kill them2.
Many biocides (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) came from the nit lotion used in the trenches and the chemical warfare practices in the WW 1.3 Fritz Haber himself invented gas warfare: his lab during WW1 exclusively produced poison gases for the war effort. He supervised the first release of gas in a war, in Ypres against the French troops in 1915.
The tractor came from the tank, while factory farming in poultry began when the US wanted to feed its troops a cheap source of meat protein during WW24.
The green revolution: enviro-mental
After the Second World War, nitrogenous fertilizers were part of the brave new world of agriculture, the so called Green Revolution, or the industrialisation of agriculture.
Using nitrogen fertilizer meant depressing biological activity in the soil, which reduced the ability of plants to feed themselves well. Useful bacteria and fungus in the roots were suppressed and trace elements lost.
Because of this loss, plants were more vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases. This then introduced a whole new generation of agri-industrial solutions – the icide family: pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
These biocides have also played their part in fundamentally altering how the world is. Pesticide poisonings kill at least 20,000 farm labourers each year, according the WHO.5 This figure is considered a gross underestimate by many experts, due to under-regulation and under-reporting. It is also a figure not updated in years, despite an increase in the use of pesticides globally6.
In biodiversity terms, the Orwellian 'plant protection products' attack target and non-target plants and animals. This has reduced biodiversity globally: As an example, in the US, 25 million birds are killed as non-direct targets of biocides each year.7 Eutrophication of lakes and now dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean are also part of nitrogen fertilizer's ongoing legacy8. More than one in 10 of Europe's rivers have nitrate levels above the official maximum contaminant level9.
Getting up to 550 degrees and 250 atmospheres/bar pressure requires an incredible ammount of energy. To produce a tonne of nitrogen fertilizer requires at least a tonne of oil and over 100 tonnes of water10. Synthetic fertilizer production is also the largest part of the energy and green house gas impact of food production11.
There are nitrous oxide emissions and emissions from the fossil fuel use itself all contributing to global warming. The finite nature of fossil fuels also makes the intensive path a dangerous dead end in food security terms: we have used hundreds of thousands of years of stored carbon in 50 years, thus rendering that portion of it unavailable for the functioning of society for the rest of time.
Fertilizer and famine
Famine alleviation was one of the first claims of the early pioneers of nitrogenous fertilizer. It is a claim that has persisted throughout the Green revolution. However the global figures suggests that the magic bullet that was synthetic nitrogen failed as did the related 'green' revolution and Genetic Modification later on.
In simple terms, this is because it was never an aim of the industry, or a priority for those with power globally. Hunger and famine are about regional and affordable food security, about upscaling to a realistic point without destroying regionally available resources. Thus, the UN's FAO point to the opportunities in organic farming for upscaling from subsistence farming in many of the world's poorer regions.
Magic bullet solutions reflect a complete lack of understanding of on-the-ground farming realities, of geo-political power, of the unfairness of global tax, subsidy and trade issues.
As an example, of the 300+ peer reviewed academic journal articles published on the effects of the green revolution in the first 40 years of its functioning, over 80% of the articles with a reference to inequality stated that inequalities have gotten worse, not better, because of the green revolution12.
Soil and food's nutrition
The industrialization of food, which has depleted soil quality and increased the amount of processing in food, is taking its toll on food quality. The Food Commission in the UK, when comparing food nutrition in the 1930s to the 1980s, found a 20% decline in minerals in the case of fruit and vegetables. The same went for meat and milk products: magnesium and iron down, and parmesan cheese down a whopping 70% in calcium13.
Research comparing the 1950s to the late 1990s found similar results: almost half of the fruits and vegetables had statistically significant lower nutritional levels.14
In fact, research into remote peoples, who's diet consists of less processed foods - even extremes of a near exclusively meat, diary or vegetarian diet - suggests that they often have healthier diets than modern westerners.
Some of this research was conducted in the early 20th century, when these diets were still remote from contact with the outside world (e.g. No railways had yet reached). Included are the peoples of the Isle of Lewis (north west Scotland); Inuit (Eskimo); Dinkas (Sudan); Swiss Alps, Amazon, Egypt and the Hunzas (Himalayas).
Today we know more about food, health and nutrition than ever before. The result? Obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and new fat busting diet pills. Coupled with stubborn world hunger figures for the last 50 years. That's progress15.
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one part of the slightly strange story of humans taming nature for convenient food. This story has a recurring and occasionally biblical theme, like moving from the Garden of Eden into a technocratic maze over millennia. It's as if we had it, we lost it or gave it away willingly, convinced ourselves that life was now different but better, and carried on.
Moving from hunter-gatherer to settled agriculture, first recorded in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates 10,000 years ago actually involved a decline in the health and nutrition of people.
At the Tell Abu Hureyra archaeological site (Syria), records show the hunter gather diet consisting of 150 seed plants and at least seven animal species, whereas their settled farming decedents had just eight food plants and two main animal species. Not only that, it is also likely that hunter gathers worked less hard than the first farmers. Modern day hunter gathers only spend about 20 hours a week 'working': that is, foraging in forests as if on a slow food autumn weekender16.
Despite the best efforts of Barbarians, Goths, Visigoths, Gutians, Chichemics, Cathars, Huns, Mongols and Turks, all of whom overran centerpiece civilizations until the invention of gunpowder, progress plodded on17.
Around 1600, changes started to occur. There was the increase in urbanisation, the move to capitalist and later to industrial society, coupled with the protestant reformation and enlightenment thinking. The conceptualisation of nature moved from that of a nurturing mother to that of an object, a thing to extract resources from.
With the growth in science and technology man thought he could conquer and appropriate nature. There are many examples of this change, but sometimes it’s the small images that tell the most. Picture this: in the middle ages, the first miners scrubbed their forearms when going underground, to be clean when entering mother nature's womb. They thought the goods taken would grow back.
The enclosures in Britain in the 17th and 18th Centuries robbed people of access to commonage, and thus food, land and forests. It drove them into slums with no sanitation, and themselves and their children into unregulated factories for 12 hour workdays18.
To accompany their long work day, tea sweetened with white sugar. Teeth in the middle ages were in far better shape than after white sugar's invention19.
This process and style of urbanisation has been continuing to this day, from Brazil to India.
Of course with this 100 year anniversary you will hear stories of how nitrogen fertilizer has helped save the world. For different angles, it is possible to see it as one part of a long history in taming nature for the benefit of the powerful.